It takes big personality to fill even an intimate recital hall with the sound of a single stringed instrument. Sheku Kanneh-Mason – the star cellist and member of a preternaturally gifted musical family – exuded acres of charisma in his solo debut with the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society at the Perelman Theater. With a generous program that spanned centuries and over two hours of music-making, he reveled in the creative possibilities available to his instrument, with a striking intelligence wedded to a rock-solid technique.

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Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Matt Genders

Kanneh-Mason occasionally spoke to the audience between movements, though his lilting voice rarely rose above a whisper. In those moments, it was easy to remember that he is only 24 years old. But when he sat down and summoned an amber-hued tone from his Matteo Goffriller 1700 cello, a listener could sense that he was communicating with his true voice. With JS Bach’s Cello Suite no. 2 in D minor, he offered a lesson in freshening up the most familiar music, his sound ranging from rich and vibrato-laden in the Prélude to tense and thready in the Gigue. The two Menuetts were a study in contrasts: the first speedy and impish, the second mournful and thickly textured. The Courante ambled along as it should, but not at the expense of precise intonation. Taken as a whole, the performance made a great case for luxuriating in the standard repertory.

Britten’s Cello Suite no. 1 provided less immediate pleasure – it’s a work that sounds arch one moment, academic the next. Kanneh-Mason’s interpretation did not entirely overcome the peculiarities of the piece, which was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, a specialist in giving voice to tortured psyches. He performed it with nary a hair out of place, moving effortlessly between elegantly bowed passages and agitated pizzicato, but the overall impact lacked a through-line for the audience to latch onto. In terms of the recognizable, Kanneh-Mason seemed more comfortable overall with the warm, Mediterranean rhythms of Gaspar Cassadó’s Suite for Solo Cello, which sounded a bit like Bach with a suntan.

Kanneh-Mason balanced the war horses with three new pieces, all composed since 2020, written expressly with his gifts in mind. He summoned a dizzying array of notes from thin air in Gwilym Simcock’s Prayer for the Senses, using the registers of his cello to produce a striking sense of counterpoint. He dispatched the tango-like melodies of Leo Brouwer’s Cello Sonata no. 2 with quick-fingered dexterity. Five Preludes by Edmund Finnis, a commission of the Royal Academy of Music’s 200 Pieces series, conveyed a range of emotions and musical styles, from rustic energy in the first movement to hazy calm in the last. In fewer than ten minutes, Kanneh-Mason traversed the full range of his instrument, finding especial pleasure in the deep, low notes of the fourth prelude.

The evening ended with a bit of good humor. After three standing ovations, Kanneh-Mason strummed and plucked his own arrangement of Bob Marley’s She Used to Call Me Dada as an encore. The audience received the reggae classic lovingly and learned they wouldn't have to wait long for a reprise: PCMS artistic director Miles Cohen announced that Sheku would return for a joint recital with his sister Isata in a year's time.