As the musical world is now very well aware, Britain’s Kanneh-Mason family consists of seven brothers and sisters, all of whom play classical music variously on the piano, violin, and/or cello at the professional level. The possible solo and ensemble configurations of this family boggle the mind.
One such combination, that of the two best-known members of the family — cellist Sheku and pianist Isata — has resulted in an album anchored by the cello sonatas of Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninoff, separated by a string of song transcriptions from both (Decca). It all goes under the album title of Muse, taken from a Rachmaninoff song of the same name on the CD.
First a confession: Until now, I had viewed the incessant hype about Sheku with more than a grain or two of salt — without much firsthand evidence, I might add. I was supposed to have heard his local debut with Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in 2018, but he understandably had to cancel since he was called to play a rather prestigious London gig at a royal wedding that rocketed him to fame. (Same thing with Isata; visa problems forced her to miss a Hollywood Bowl date with the LA Phil on the calendar last summer). Sheku’s recording of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 was available, but its draggy pacing and shortage of bite didn’t make much of an impression. But this disc is a different story, a fuller realization of this cellist’s — and this duo’s — musicianship and potential.
Contrary to the opening sentence of the booklet notes, this isn’t the Kanneh-Masons’s first collaboration for Decca — several digital singles, among them intense performances of Pablo Casals’s Song of the Birds and Gaspar Cassadó’s Requiebros, preceded it. Indeed, they had been touring with the Barber and Rachmaninoff sonatas in fall 2019 until COVID-19 shut down everything. Not letting the deadly virus stop them in their tracks, they kept digging diligently away at the sonatas during lockdown, eventually recording them in October 2020
Sheku launches directly, fervently, into the retro-Romantic passion of the Barber Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Minor, Op. 9, an artifact from the composer’s student years. Barber was just 21, the same age as Sheku when he recorded it. Sheku’s tone is strong, steady, his command of the line unwavering, maintaining interlocked teamwork with his sister in the agitated give-and-take at the center of the slow movement. They surf the volatile changing moods of the finale with assurance and plenty of fire, two young musicians identifying with a young man’s music. The four Barber songs that follow are, by contrast, gentle, elegiac, uncomplicated vignettes, while the three Rachmaninoff songs offer samples of his lyrical yet tempestuous Slavic soul.
The Rachmaninoff Sonata for Cello and Piano in G Minor, Op. 19, occupies the majority of the disc as the airtight, equitably balanced teamwork of the Kanneh-Masons continues. Sheku’s tone colors hardly vary, but the intensity fluctuates as needed, always within as smooth and seamless a line as he can maintain. They attack the irresistible themes of the scherzo sharply, even impetuously, and Isata provides a limpid, deeply felt accompaniment for Sheku’s dynamically wide, fluid line in the slow movement. It’s quite a captivating performance, one that offers convincing proof that Sheku is something special in the cello world — and just the beginning of what this duo has to offer.