NEW YORK — There is always a hunger to discover young talent, all the better if the artist has a compelling story. As with their 2019 recital debut in Weill Hall, interest in the Kanneh-Mason duo’s appearance at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on May 4 was fanned by their story.
The pair — pianist Isata and cellist Sheku — are the first- and third-born of a large family from Nottingham, England. The seven siblings are classically trained musicians, all of whom play either string instruments or piano, or both. Their parents, Kadiatu Kanneh, a former university lecturer born in Sierra Leone, and Stuart Mason, a hotel business manager with Antiguan roots, both studied music as children, but without professional aspirations. Their children have achieved a remarkable level of accomplishment and increasing fame. Kadiatu described the challenges of raising this talented family in a memoir.
From 25-year-old Isata (piano) down to 12-year-old Mariatu (cello and piano), the siblings have been performing together in various combinations, excelling in standard classical repertoire and in more broadly popular types of music. In 2015, they received broad exposure in the UK as semi-finalists on the TV series Britain’s Got Talent, and in 2018 Sheku stumbled into global fame when he played for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Collecting awards, scholarships, and engagements world wide, the family continued to play together during the pandemic lockdown, streaming performances, and the older family members have recorded for Decca. In 2018, Sheku’s top-selling debut album, Inspiration, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra led by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, capped a wide-ranging classical playlist with tunes by Bob Marley and Leonard Cohen. Isata’s 2019 album, Romance: The Piano Music of Clara Schumann, was dedicated to an under-appreciated composer whose career as a touring piano virtuoso supported her husband, Robert, and their large family. It’s difficult to assess from the outside, but the Kanneh-Mason family seem to be a talented, industrious, and close-knit family who are surprisingly normal in spite of their abnormally demanding musical life.
The evening’s repertoire — late Beethoven plus three 20th–century sonatas — provided a showcase for their strengths: expressive tone and lyrical lines, a taste for spontaneity and quicksilver changes, and telepathic communication, in addition to fierce technical mastery of their respective instruments. Their music-making is expressive but natural, free of head tossing and other theatrical gestures meant to visually represent expression. Isata seems like the the guardian of clarity and precision; Sheku appears more relaxed.
Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C major, Op. 102, No. 1, began with a gentle Andante, soon moving into a more turbulent Allegro vivace. Did I sense a bit of restlessness in the more classically symmetrical passages? The duo played beautifully, but they seemed more invested in the stormier moments, which would characterize much of the program. Still, I think Beethoven would have been pleased.
Sheku has an affinity for Shostakovich, whose music was featured on his first recording. The Cello Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40, from 1934, written during the same year as his notorious opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, displays the composer’s mélange of brooding melody alternating with frenetic outbursts, rhythmic vigor, abrupt tonal shifts, and frequent dashes of irony. The siblings spelled one another as the lead lines alternated between cello and piano, though the cello had the edge in the more tender phrases, thanks in no small part to the magnificent tone of Sheku’s instrument, a loaned 1700 Matteo Goffriller.
Frank Bridge’s Cello Sonata in D Minor, H. 125, was a delicious discovery. A student of Charles Villiers Stanford and teacher of Benjamin Britten, the composer was indeed a bridge between the Romantic and modern eras. This two-movement work, written between 1913 and 1917, suggests the shift between the pre- and post-war zeitgeist.
The passionate, rhapsodic first movement gives way to more cautious, ruminative writing in the second, less moored in tonality; the mood ebbs and flows, like a battered soul mustering the force for a few final utterances. As in the Shostakovich, piano and cello navigated the expressive shifts like a pair of rafters in white water.
The Kanneh-Masons haven’t embraced contemporary music (yet), but Britten’s Cello Sonata in C major, Op. 65, came closer than the rest of the recital. Written for Rostropovich in 1960-61, the five-movement work is more pointillistic, textured, and enigmatic than the other works heard, calling for non-bowed techniques like pizzicato, glissando, strumming, and harmonics from the cello. Piano and cello are equal partners in the creation of something new — spiky and shy, both delicate and muscular. As throughout the evening, the pair thoroughly inhabited the piece, never sounding strained by the technical demands, never taken by surprise by an abrupt shift in tempo. The final Moto perpetuo: Presto was a tour de force that drew the cheering crowd to their feet. A single encore, an arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River,” left the sold-out audience wanting more.