The penultimate offering from the BBC Proms was, in fact, the first to be recorded, in late August. Broadcast on radio last Sunday, the television broadcast on Friday brought it fully to life. Emerging out of their home lockdown broadcasts into the concert hall were two of the Kanneh-Mason siblings, Sheku and Isata, with their sister Konya turning the pages.

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

There have been chamber Proms concerts at the Royal Albert Hall before, but surely none quite like this. There was a strange intimacy, with the absence of an audience, and many concert formalities stripped away – no applause, no leaving the stage between pieces, just the siblings left to chat whilst the cameras cut silently to presenter Tom Service and guest Joanna MacGregor for some brief but insightful commentary. The cameras did a wonderful job, offering a wide range of close-ups – keyboard, cello fingerboard and bowing, as well as facial expressions, particularly Sheku’s emotive, often ecstatic contortions. It felt as if we were somehow intruding on a private display of music making. Yet this was the vast, cavernous RAH, beautifully lit, but with its booming echo reminding us that we were not in a chamber salon. 

As for the music, Sheku and Isata had chosen a great programme of three major cello sonatas, with Frank Bridge’s luscious Mélodie in between. They confessed in their recorded introduction to there being no ‘clever’ theme, rather they had chosen some of their favourite pieces to play... and why not? The Beethoven came first (Op.102 no.1), and the Kanneh-Masons enjoyed the conversational exchanges in the two movement’s slow openings, whilst giving the fast sections that follow in both cases great energy and momentum. They were still settling into the huge acoustic, and the echo interfered once or twice, with some cello detail a little lost in the balance at the second movement’s most frenetic moments. But this was nevertheless a strong opening performance. Moving to Samuel Barber's sonata, the Brahmsian passion and lyricism gave Sheku in particular the opportunity to be open-heartedly expressive, and at the return of the Adagio in the middle movement, the exquisite mixture of sunlight and sadness was as transparent in his facial expression as in the passion of both performers’ rendering of Barber’s late Romantic outpourings.   

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason
Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Bridge’s Mélodie, a beautiful miniature in comparison to the rest of the programme, nevertheless took its rightful place in proceedings – indeed, not just a programme filler, as Isata pointed out. Its lush, sweeping arcs and flowing, lyrical lines felt like a warm bath, and despite occasional echo spill, Sheku and Isata remained in total sync, right to the perfectly timed finish.

During their widely-viewed family lockdown broadcasts, Sheku and Isata worked their way through all four movements of the Rachmaninov sonata, so it felt right to see a full performance here. Isata explained that they had worked on it separately for some time, as the demands of the two parts are so great. She definitely demonstrated the equal status of the piano part’s virtuosity here with phenomenal command, particularly in the second movement. The sibling closeness shone through, and despite those two huge ‘solo’ parts, they played as one. They captured the bluesy minor/major inflections at the start of the third movement with deft subtlety, and enjoyed the folk-like lyrical melody of the finale. Even the occasional echoey blare from the cello in its higher registers added to the joyful explosion here, right to the Presto finish.

High-class chamber performances throughout, with the TV cameras achieving surprising intimacy within the vast splendour of the RAH. A very special Prom indeed.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.

*****