Kanneh-Masons bring versatility, interpretive depth to Celebrity Series debut

May 9, 2022 at 1:14 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason performed Saturday night at Symphony Hall for the Celebrity Series. Photo: Robert Torres

Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason may be in the early stages of their careers. But they play together with the interpretive depth of seasoned musicians.

Cellist Sheku, 23, rose to fame after playing at the 2018 wedding ceremony of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, two years after winning the BBC Young Musician Award. 25-year-old Isata is already a pianst with a wide and versatile repertoire, evidenced by her probing accounts of music by Clara Schumann, Samuel Barber, and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The British siblings made a simpatico duet Saturday night at Symphony Hall when they conveyed the essential drama of cello sonatas by Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bridge, and Britten in a highly anticipated Celebrity Series recital.

The music on the program connected through associations between the composers. Bridge had been Britten’s teacher. And Shostakovich had been drawn to his mutual admirer Britten through the playing of cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

On the surface, Bridge and Shostakovich may seem antipodal, but their respective works bear haunting similarities. Bridge completed his Cello Sonata amidst the horrors of the First World War; Shostakovich composed his just before he fell afoul of Soviet authorities. Cast in D minor, both of these scores explore a sardonic wit that proved an ideal vehicle for the Kanneh-Masons.

Sheku’s dusky resonance brought palpable weight to Bridge’s quasi-impressionistic sweep. Isata offered pearly complement in the opening movement, and her poetic touch in the second resulted in pensive tenderness. Together, they charted the quick passages with nervous energy that broke its tension in a concluding affirmation.

Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata, Op. 40, bears the sly humor that would come to define his later style. Yet there are fleeting lyrical moments spread across its four movements.

Sheku and Isata found an uncommon sweetness in the opening Allegro. They teased the sarcasm from the ensuing movement, with Sheku’s figures bounding with restless energy. Crisp harmonies sparkled in Isata’s upper register, delivering additional zest. The two mined the brooding depths of the Largo and brought fiery abandon to the finale.

They tackled Britten’s Cello Sonata, Op. 65 with a playful élan to reveal the work’s mix of soft radiance and skittish angst.

The pair’s faint gestures made the opening Dialogo into a humorous collage. Plucked strings and piano filigree in the Scherzo were equally spirited. The Elegia found the two descending into a harmonic and textural abyss, with the chromatic agitation yielding only in the hushed closing bars. The March and final Moto Perpetuo showcased Sheku and Isata in a frenzied display of arpeggios and scales.

Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 opened the concert in equally bold contrasts. The work walks a wire between introspection and storm-tossed exuberance. Yet the duo revealed an arresting sensitivity. The cellist rendered the opening phrases with silver resonance to complement the pianist’s plaintive subtlety.

Elsewhere, they played with powerful momentum. The musicians tore through the second movement with a live-wire intensity that drew early applause. Throughout, Isata was a dark-toned presence. Sheku’s warm tone cast light on the spacious Adagio.

For an encore, the Kanneh-Masons offered a bluesy and soulful rendition of Coleridge-Taylor’s “Deep River.”

The Celebrity Series will present bass-baritone Dashon Burton in songs by Bach, Brahms, Fauré, and Bonds 8 p.m. May 25 at Pickman Hall. celebrityseries.org

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