A century after the premiere of Sir Edward Elgar’s monumental Cello Concerto in E minor, British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason released a performance of the work under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in his second full-length album. Accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), the 20-year-old cellist recorded his album at Abbey Road Studios under the label Decca Classics. The album, titled “Elgar,” was released on Jan. 10 and peaked at the eighth spot on UK charts, making him the first cellist in history to make it to the UK top 10.
After being the first black musician to win the BBC Young Artists Competition in 2016, Kanneh-Mason made a splash in the world of classical music. He gained even more traction after performing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018. He has appeared with some of the world’s leading orchestras and has been using his stardom to advocate for increased accessibility of classical music. He achieves this goal through collaborations with schools and youth music programs, leading to what many are calling the “Sheku Effect”: a phenomenon explaining an influx of cello students in British music schools. His young age and recent visibility make Sheku a role model for many young musicians in the UK and abroad. Kanneh-Mason is glad that he is able to inspire young musicians, but he expresses dissatisfaction with the elitism that is becoming of classical music, speaking of the issue in an interview with British classical music news source, Classic FM.
“Music has an amazing way of expressing lots of things, and every person reacts to it differently,” Kanneh-Mason said to Classic FM. “To not have the opportunity to properly experience that is a terrible shame.”
Through outreach programs, concerts and recordings, Kanneh-Mason is bringing classical music back from this elitism to art that can be experienced by more people from different sectors of society. In addition to his involvement with young musicians, Kanneh-Mason has been an active member of the UK’s Chineke! Orchestra, an orchestra comprised of black and minority ethnic musicians aiming to promote equal representation in classical music performance and participation across racial borders. The Chineke! Orchestra regularly performs “standard” concert repertoire along with classical works by composers of color.
In “Elgar,” Sheku presents an expertly curated tracklist that is a mix of traditional, lyrical art pieces and Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor. His 1610 Amati cello is a responsive and mellow instrument that, despite its age, is pulled into modernity by Sheku’s deliberate and emotional style.
Although something of an unconventional performance, the Cello Concerto in E Minor crowns the album. Where many other cellists play this concerto with tight tempos and oppressive heaviness, Kanneh-Mason’s recording is much more fluid and sweet; while this more intimate interpretation may detract from Elgar’s original vision for the piece as being something prodigious, Kanneh-Mason’s recording is undeniably beautiful and demonstrates an intense musicality seldom conveyed through recordings. Even over digitized sound waves, Sheku’s playing is pensive and hypnotic.
Overall, traditionalists would argue that the concerto could have been improved with more projection and intensity from Kanneh-Mason. While more intensity in the recording would have added an extra layer of musicality, the tenderness of his playing must be at least partially deliberate, and it is a product of a unique interpretation of the work.
Outside of Elgar’s concerto, Kanneh-Mason includes other works by Elgar, Frank Bridge, Ernest Bloch, Gabriel Fauré and Julius Klengel, and also includes arrangements of traditional tunes. Standing out among the mix are the arrangements of the traditional melody “Blow the Wind Southerly” and Bridge’s “Spring Song.” These works are played with a certain warmth and care that even the most seasoned musicians struggle to achieve — and Sheku does it at 20. “Blow the Wind Southerly” is a folk song from Northumberland, England, and was arranged for unaccompanied cello by Kanneh-Mason himself. The freeness of folk music, along with the original arrangement, gives Sheku’s opening track the feeling of a soulful cadenza and reels the listener into a world of passionate music.
“Spring Song,” a short piece by English composer Frank Bridge, is performed by Sheku accompanied by The Heath Quartet. The arrangement by Simon Parkin is his best on the album, perhaps for its intrinsic simplicity as a piece of light classical music; some of Parkin’s other arrangements, especially that of his arrangement of “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma Variations,” overcomplicate instrumentations and feel messy. “Spring Song” is clean and tight, and upholds the integrity of Bridge’s original. Additionally, Sheku’s gentle sound lends itself extremely well to this kind of music, allowing this track to shine among the others.
Despite some insufficient arrangements and unconventional interpretations of works, Sheku presents a unique musicality that persists throughout the album and captivates listeners, who eagerly await what the young cellist will do next.