Sheku Kanneh-Mason must be wondering whether he’ll ever shake off the epithet of being “the royal wedding cellist”. It has brought him fame (and no doubt contributed to this concert selling out), but it also sells him short because he was already an estimable musician before he played St George’s Chapel, and this, his Edinburgh Festival debut, confirmed that with a powerful, deeply poetic reading of Elgar's concerto.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason outside the Usher Hall © Ryan Buchanan
Sheku Kanneh-Mason outside the Usher Hall
© Ryan Buchanan

He cut an endearing figure on the podium, with trainers, spotty waistcoat and open collar; but, once he started playing, the fact of his age (19!) became immaterial. He played the opening flourish introspectively, almost under a hush, as though to emphasis the work’s introverted, melancholy nature, and his way with the first theme was gentle and swaying with an overriding sense of lyricism that set the tone for the whole work.

Kanneh-Mason plays the cello with a storyteller’s skill, guiding us through Elgar’s score as though telling us a story, with every touch conveying a lot of meaning, such as the way he shuddered rapidly into the Scherzo, or played the Adagio like a bittersweet lullaby on a supportive bed of orchestral strings. The finale then cracked along like an ironic march, light on its feet until the wistful coda hinted at untold sadness, and the return of the slow movement’s theme was utterly poignant. In short, he’s a star because of his talent, not because of the work he has been given, and we should all look forward to hearing what he has to say in future.

The CBSO in rehearsel © Ryan Buchanan
The CBSO in rehearsel
© Ryan Buchanan

As if that wasn’t enough excitement in this concert, we also had the Scottish première of Stravinsky’s recently rediscovered Funeral Song, and all the hype I’d heard elsewhere seems to have been justified. There’s an inescapable difficulty with early works like this hearing them “backwards” through the prism of The Firebird, so that the flickering high harps and muted brass seem to carry inevitable pre-echoes of the later ballet score. That can make it difficult to appreciate it as a work in and of itself, but the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra argued a great case for it tonight, with ringing winds, delicate brass and shimmering strings that brought disarming clarity to every register.

Clarity was also the keynote of Daphnis et Chloé, played with surging, luminous textures but also razor-sharp solos, such as the jaunty trumpets for Dorcon’s dance, or the battalion of percussion that were as light on their feet as a troupe of ballerinas. Ludovic Morlot controlled the score most convincingly, throwing on some extra volts for the pirates’ scenes or the final Danse générale, but also broadening out the texture for the shimmering sound of the dawn or the nymphs’ prayer. The Festival Chorus sang orchestrally and with great colour throughout, although the men made for the most genteel set of pirates I’ve heard since my last trip to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Penzance.

****1