Teen Cellist Makes Brilliant CD Debut In Shostakovich

Sheku Kanneh-Mason takes his bows with conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla after their performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1. (Andrew Fox for The Observer)

Inspiration. Shostakovich: Cello Concerto No. 1 Op. 107. Shorter works by Yosef Hadar, Saint-Saëns, Casals, Offenbach, Bob Marley, and Leonard Cohen. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, cello. City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, conductor. Decca Classics 483 2948. Total Time: 64:21.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — A new recording of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 1 is not an uncommon event; in the past few years we have had excellent versions by Steven Isserlis, Gautier Capuçon, and Alisa Weilerstein. But when it features a 19-year-old from Nottingham, England, performing with a major orchestra on a quality label, attention must be paid. Judging by this Decca release, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who won the BBC Young Musician Competition in 2016, the first black winner in the competition’s history, clearly deserved his victory.

Gražinytė-Tyla makes only her second recording appearance with this disc. (Peter Fischli)

Kanneh-Mason’s sound may be enhanced by his 1610 Amati cello, but the singular eloquence of the music-making is all his own. Another outstanding feature is the work of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla the brilliant young music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. To my knowledge, her only other recording to date is Weinberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 153 (ECM 002611702), released last year.  She gets sparkling and incisive playing from the CBSO in the first and last movements, and finds the ideal balance for the celesta and solo cello harmonics at the end of the slow movement. She and Kanneh-Mason have a wonderful rapport throughout the performance.

The program is filled out with some familiar cello encores, with Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan” making yet another appearance as well as lesser-known short pieces. In four of the tracks, Kanneh-Mason, joined by the cello section of the CBSO, performs very effective arrangements of Yosef Hadar’s “Evening of Roses” and several pieces by Pablo Casals. The best of the arrangements are Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with violist Alinka Rowe, cellist Yong Lee, and Kanneh-Mason in breathtakingly ecstatic mode at the climax of “Hallelujah.”

By the way, it’s nice to see credit given to the horn in the Shostakovich. Elspeth Dutch knocks off the prominent solos with power and fearlessness.

In summary, Inspiration is a brilliant debut album that leaves one anticipating more fine recordings from Kanneh-Mason.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for theartoftheconductor.comwww.ludwig-van.com (formerly musicaltoronto.org), and www.myscena.org.