Five years after he won the BBC Young Musician Award at the Barbican in London, young cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason was back performing in the same building with his pianist sister, Isata. Their concert was originally scheduled to take place in March but eventually took place on July 4th and was released for streaming. It featured a number of shorter compositions by Frank Bridge, Sergei Rachmaninov and Benjamin Britten, bookended by two 20th century English cello sonatas by Bridge and Britten. The concert evoked the great chamber music partnership between Britten and the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and even featured some of their repertoire.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Tom Howard | Barbican

Referred to mostly by his first name, a status traditionally offered to pop stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé, Sheku may be one of the best recognised English musicians of his generation; yet he is still a student at London’s Royal Academy of Music and he still possesses his boyish charm and disarming demeanour. The pressure on him and his sister to live up to the expectations must be considerable and on this occasion, they delivered an excellent performance appearing focussed and relaxed in their collaborative music making.

Isata Kanneh-Mason
© Tom Howard | Barbican

The Cello Sonata in D minor, H.125 by Bridge was composed mostly during World War I, but its battles relate more to changes in tonality than to historical events. Britten described this phase in Bridge’s compositional work as “impatience with tonality” and indeed, in the second movement, experimental bitonal sections appear along with whole-tone colours. Yet, the most touching moment came in the first movement, where a delicate arrival to a pianissimo and dreamlike F major cadence carried sentimental attraction to traditional tonalities. Both artists essentially played their part from memory, bringing out the many shades of soft dynamics and the inherent melancholy of the score eminently well. Sheku’s musicianship was commanding and his sister’s sensitive contribution was no less assured.

With another nod to Rostropovich’s influence, the cellist’s only solo performance was Britten’s Tema 'Sacher', part of a series of twelve compositions by as many composers that the Russian cellist commissioned for the 70th birthday of the distinguished Swiss conductor, Paul Sacher. It is a short work, written and (here) performed with care and attention to detail.

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Tom Howard | Barbican

The positive impressions made by the Kanneh-Mason siblings were cemented by two transcriptions (and a third later, as an encore) from Rachmaninov’s song cycle, 14 Romances, followed by three short compositions for cello and piano by Bridge (Spring Song, Mélodie in C sharp minor and Scherzo). The last item on the programme, however, Britten’s Cello Sonata in C major, Op.65, written at Rostropovich’s request and bearing his technical abilities in mind, was the most substantial work of the concert. All of its five movements offered strong, clearly identifiable characters, such as the hesitant and introverted dialogue between the two instruments beginning the first movement (ingeniously expressed by the cello playing nothing but small cells of paired neighbour notes for the first 43 bars). The end of this movement subtly cites the identical section of cello harmonics from Maurice Ravel’s Piano Trio, slightly confused here as one of the rare technical glitches of the concert. The pizzicato Scherzo movement was virtuosic and near-perfectly executed. After the nostalgic central, slow movement, the Marcia propelled the work with irreversible energy to the Moto perpetuo finale.

One of the most appealing features of the concert was the friendly and casual nature with which these two young musicians presented a concert of relatively lesser-known works for cello and piano to a mostly young audience. The reception was highly enthusiastic, with much cheering and an informal post-performance Q and A session afterwards, where the siblings put questions of the audience written on postcards to each other.

This concert was reviewed from the Barbican video stream