Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Composers: Elgar, Bridge, Bloch, Fauré, Klengel
Compositions: Cello Concerto, 
Performers: Sheku Kanneh-Mason vc, London Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle cond
Catalogue Number: Decca 4850241

Ever since Jacqueline du Pré’s 1965 recording of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra and Sir John Barbirolli, the elegiac work, composed in the aftermath of the First World War, has been a cornerstone of the instrument’s repertoire and a benchmark for cellists around the world.

Given that young cello superstar Sheku Kanneh-Mason cited du Pré as an influence when he released his 2018 album, Inspiration, it’s no surprise that a recording of the Elgar should soon follow. Big shoes to fill, certainly, but Kanneh-Mason – who rose to fame when he took out the BBC Young Musician award in 2016 – proves himself more up to the task.

He’s joined here by the London Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle and it’s a charged performance as soon as bow hits strings. The opening movement’s first emotional peak, when the cello’s rising scalic figure bursts into an orchestral climax at its apex, is exquisitely judged –  goose-bumps stuff. Kanneh-Mason brings shivering energy to the fast passages of the second movement, sweetness to the Adagio and a powerful, inexorable weight – driven on by Rattle and the orchestra – to the finale. It’s a thrilling performance and one that can certainly hold its own against the many great cellists who have come before.

The remainder of the album is lighter fare – encore-length pieces and arrangements by Elgar, Fauré and more. Kanneh-Mason is by no means the only musician, or even cellist, to program this way, and there is perhaps a deliberate effort here to appeal to the broader audience his performance at the 2018 Royal Wedding attracted. But after the wide-ranging repertoire of Inspiration, which presented Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No 1 alongside a string of shorter numbers, it would have been gratifying to hear the Elgar paired with another major concerto – Steven Isserlis has paired it with the Walton, for instance, Alisa Weilerstein with Elliot Carter’s concerto, Sol Gabetta with Martinů and so on.

That said, the album nonetheless makes for pleasant listening. It opens with Kanneh-Mason’s own arrangement of the folk song Blow the Wind Southerly, followed by the popular Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, arranged for cello and cello quintet by Simon Parkin, the husband of Kanneh-Mason’s cello teacher Hannah Roberts. There’s also a nice arrangement of Scarborough Fair for cello and guitar by Parkin, performed with Kanneh-Mason’s friend and flatmate, guitarist Plinio Fernandes. But for my money, the highlight of the shorter works are the two pieces by Ernest Bloch, the poignant Prelude for String Quartet and the lean, striking lines of Prayer No. 1 from From Jewish Life with older brother Braimah Kanneh-Mason on violin.

Don’t miss Kanneh-Mason’s Elgar, and for those itching to hear him tackle some more of the great concerto repertoire, we must remember that despite his assured performances, he’s still only 21 years old – so there is plenty of time for all that. I’m eager to hear what he brings out next.