Renowned Musical Siblings Bring Family Artistry to Princeton University
By Nancy Plum
Sibling musical prodigies can be found throughout history — brother and sister Mozart, the Haydn brothers, and a large family of Bachs — but there is nothing in classical music today quite like the Kanneh-Masons. Raised in Nottingham, England, the seven brothers and sisters of the Kanneh-Mason family each play violin, piano, and/or cello, all at a very high level. They appear professionally both individually and collectively, have won numerous awards, and are especially known for their livestreams of innovative arrangements and performances.
Two members of this acclaimed family came to Richardson Auditorium last Wednesday night as the last performance of Princeton University Concerts’ 2021-22 season. Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, accompanied by his sister, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, played a program of four 19th and 20th-century sonatas for cello and piano, none of which were lightweight pieces and all of which showed that these two siblings have musical skills way beyond their years.
Cellist Sheku has already made history in the United Kingdom as the first cellist in history to reach the U.K. Album Chart Top 10. His popularity as a musician was instantaneous from his performance at the royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and he is now in demand as a soloist throughout the world. Pianist Isata has won her own share of awards, drawing on her training at London’s Royal Academy of Music and forging her own path as a piano soloist.
Sheku and Isata mesmerized the audience at Richardson last week with the chamber music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Dmitri Shostakovich, Frank Bridge and Benjamin Britten. One of Sheku’s most striking characteristics as a performer is his range of facial expressions while playing, showing that this young artist pours emotion into every note. Opening with Beethoven’s Sonata for Cello and Piano, No. 4 in C Major, the Kanneh-Masons showed consistent expressive intensity, with clarity in the accompaniment and elegant melodic lines from the cello. The first movement “andante” introduction included a graceful dialog between cello and piano, with Isata playing delicately light trills with a flowing right hand.
Both performers were precisely together throughout the Sonata, shifting moods well and bringing out the 19th-century drama in the music. This being a late work of Beethoven, it was bound to conclude with a “ripper” ending, and the Kanneh-Masons met the challenge with Sheku’s fluid cello lines against Isata’s lyrical but technically demanding piano accompaniment.
Contrasting the Viennese lyricism of Beethoven was the emotional passion and impact of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor. Premiered in 1934, before the composer fell out of favor with the Stalin regime, this work also aimed to keep chamber music at the forefront of Russian music at a time when small ensemble pieces were falling out of favor. The Kanneh-Mason’s performance of this work began with crisp “question-and-answer” passages between cello and piano, and both performers built musical intensity together well. Sheku provided both a rich melody and clean pizzicato playing in the dark first movement; this movement was unusually long, and both Isata and Sheku found a wide range of dynamics and passion through the repeated rhythmic motives and extension into the lower register of the cello.
In the second movement “allegro,” neither instrument stopped for an instant, with Sheku demonstrating glissando harmonics on the cello against Isata’s strong piano octaves. Sheku controlled the introspective third movement “largo,” leading the wide range of emotions. Reminiscent of Franz Liszt, the final movement “rondo” placed a demonic refrain in the piano, with each repetition becoming more complex. Sheku’s cello playing showed an especially light bow on the strings against the nonstop piano accompaniment expertly handled by Isata.
The closing major work on the program also came from the 20th century — Benjamin Britten’s Sonata for Cello and Piano in C Major. This work was connected to the Shostakovich Sonata in that it was requested of Britten by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who also performed a number of the Russian composer’s cello works. Britten’s Sonata included more technically unusual effects than the other works on the program, including a movement in which Sheku played the cello part entirely pizzicato. The five movements of this Sonata included a number of dialogs between cello and piano, all showing solid communication between the performers, and musical intensity was passed back and forth between the instruments well. Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason concluded Wednesday night’s concert with a lush arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River,” further demonstrating the connection between the siblings and providing a peaceful ending to what may have seemed an uphill battle season for Princeton University Concerts.
Princeton University Concerts has announced a full 2022-23 season of chamber and solo performances. Information about the upcoming season can be found on the PUC website at concerts.princeton.edu.