When cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason won the BBC’s prestigious Young Musician of the Year award in 2016, he was the first black performer to do so. A viral video of his performance at the wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry further stoked his celebrity status.
But it’s Kanneh-Mason’s playing that really does the talking, as his Twin Cities debut Thursday evening at Ordway Concert Hall thrillingly demonstrated.
Presented by the Schubert Club, the recital started with Beethoven’s Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen,” an aria from Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute.” You’d go a long way to hear it bettered.
Much of its wit and whimsy lies in the piano part, where the British player had a sparklingly responsive partner in his sister Isata, at 23 just three years his senior. They conjured an interpretation of bubbling spontaneity, alive in every bar with cheeky inflections and joyful appreciation of Beethoven’s inventiveness.
Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s “Grave (Metamorphoses for Cello and Piano)” followed, its air of concentrated threnody a jolting contrast to the lighthearted Beethoven.
The scything truculence and light-bowed slitherings of Lutoslawski’s cello writing allowed Kanneh-Mason to stretch out technically, while his precise scaling of dynamics enabled the composition’s structure to be cogently articulated. The whispered cello harmonic at the work’s conclusion fell breath-catchingly away to nothing.
Part one of the recital concluded with a relative rarity — American composer Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata, a piece he wrote when roughly the same age as the Kanneh-Masons. Both siblings brought a galvanizing commitment to the opening movement, relishing the music’s passionate impetuosity without allowing it to fly off into wildly unanchored territory.
The cellist’s phrasing of the Adagio’s touching melody was disarmingly heartfelt, while his sister pinned the scampering rhythms of the central Presto episode with dexterous virtuosity.
A big beast of the cello repertoire came after intermission — Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor, a work that places extreme technical demands on both cellist and pianist.
It held no fears for either musician. One hopes their sweepingly expressive performance will be recorded by their record company, Decca. The opening movement’s convulsively emotional development section was formidably projected by both players, then leavened by Isata Kanneh-Mason’s calming, dispassionate treatment of her solo interludes. The Allegro Scherzando spat and hissed without ever turning messy, and her brother’s intense yet never narcissistic phrasing in the Andante was a thing of treasurable beauty.
At 20, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is already an extraordinary player who marries immaculate technique with the ability to sound spontaneous and make each new bar of music seem freshly interesting. In this first flush of his artistic maturity, music is simply flowing through him unimpeded. If he can keep it that way, greatness beckons.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.