Kanneh-Mason siblings impress in Celebrity Series debut

December 14, 2019 at 12:52 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason in their Celebrity Series debut Friday at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason gained a worldwide following with his performance last year at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. On Friday night at Jordan Hall, 20-year-old Sheku and his 23-year-old sister, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, made their Celebrity Series debut, and proved to be musicians of high technical order and great expressiveness.

Their occasionally offbeat recital program began conventionally enough,  with Beethoven’s op. 66 Variations in F major. By turns playful, snappy, dreamy, and songful, the score is a ten-minute long reworking of the aria “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

The Kanneh-Masons’ good-natured reading emphasized the Variations’ contrasts of character as well as the brilliant interplay between the cello and piano lines. Indeed, that latter quality was vividly illustrated in the fourth variation, with its episodes of cello double-stops answered by florid keyboard lines: both siblings occupied their distinct tonal and gestural spaces, but bounced off one another with graceful ease.

The charm of the Beethoven was then counterpoised with the sober, sometimes ominous textures of Witold Lutosławski’s Grave. Written in 1981 in memory of the Polish musicologist (and Debussy specialist) Stefan Jarociński, Grave takes the first four notes of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande and adapts them in a variety of ways. Lyrical and aggressive figures alternate. Though the tempo doesn’t change, the music’s rhythmic energy is gradually compressed, so the piece seems to come to an aural boil. Structurally, it captivates, beginning in the cello’s lowest range and ending — beguilingly — in the stratosphere.

The Kanneh-Masons’ performance of Grave displayed rhythmic bite and atmosphere. Lutosławski’s cello writing sang intensely as the work built to its searing climax, while the songful figures glowed warmly. Throughout, balances were carefully calibrated. Isata played the busy piano part with a terrific sense of color and dramatic forcefulness, but the keyboard never overwhelmed the cello.

Possibly that’s because her brother plays with such gusto and noble tone that he’s simply impossible to cover. At any rate, the two have excellent chemistry and, on Friday, complemented one another’s playing with the utmost sensitivity.

Their excellent rapport carried over into the interpretation of Samuel Barber’s 1932 Sonata for Cello and Piano that followed the Lutosławski. Though a student piece, the three-movement Sonata anticipates the full-blown Romantic that Barber became in his maturity. Its outer movements are sweeping and turbulent. The central one encapsulates both a mellifluous slow section and a nimble scherzo.

The scherzo, with its blend of devotional lyricism and spunky gaiety, came across radiantly on Friday, especially its soaring apogee. In the outer movements, Barber’s passionate, lyrical cello lines spoke potently, thanks in part to Sheku’s judicious employment of vibrato.

A close attention to instrumental balances defined the duo’s fluent, emotionally-charged account of Rachmaninoff’s Sonata for Cello and Piano that came after intermission. This 1901 essay is full of familiar Rachmaninoff touches: grand melodies, brooding textures, busy piano lines and the like.

On Friday, the Sonata’s dramatic shape came across lucidly. The ruminative first movement — thanks to mighty contrasts of dynamics, texture, and mood — spoke with clarity and purpose. The second burned with demoniac energy, while the gorgeous third simply shimmered. As a result, the finale, with its echoes of previously-heard motives and rich, thrilling piano part, boasted a true sense of catharsis and arrival.

Afterwards, the pair rewarded a robust ovation with an encore of Sheku’s Paganini-esque arrangement of Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter,” dispatched with alacritous brio.

The Celebrity Series presents Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell playing music by Ravel, Kodaly, Widmann, Xenakis, Ligeti, and others 8 p.m. January 23 and 24 at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661

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