Tag Archives: Isata Kanneh-Mason

PERTH FESTIVAL: Isata Kanneh-Mason

Perth Concert Hall

The most wonderful moment in a young musician’s career is when they suddenly appear to have cracked it; where maturity and composure hits in and a performance seems more a genuine lived experience than one of technique-masquerading-as-mastery. 

I’m not saying that moment arrived for pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason specifically with Sunday’s release of her gripping online Perth Festival programme. But for those of us experiencing her several recent appearances in Scotland, this was surely the turning point. Have a listen and decide for yourselves. The programme is available on line for 30 days.

She plays Mozart, Chopin, Gershwin and Samuel Barber, and in each case strikes an electrifying balance between stylistic deference and compelling rhetoric. The one advantage of playing in the absence of audience applause is that each piece can be heard in direct, uninterrupted context. Kanneh-Mason uses that opportunity to fully energise her programme, It hardly stops for breath.

Mozart’s C minor Sonata provides the perfect opener, clean and transparent on the one hand, exploiting fully the minor key dramatic potential on the other. Kanneh-Mason plays one against the other, visibly precise and articulate with her finger work, yet ever-aware of the emotional cut and  thrust of the opening movement, or the lyrical suppleness of the ensuing Adagio. There is utter confidence, too, in the extent to which spontaneous nuance gives expressive character to the musical phrase.

The immediate transition into Chopin’s Ballade No 2 is an easy one, given the calm triadic chordal theme with which it opens. But this, too, is music that thrives on the thrill of vying sentiments, this time in the stormy language of the Romantics. Kanneh-Mason unleashes the fiery element of the Chopin with blistering passion, allowing the work’s argument to reach fever point, and the ultimate triumph of reasoning to assert its quiet, restful resolution. 

To follow that immediately with Gershwin’s Three Preludes is to time travel with a ferocious jolt. Published in 1926, they are jazzy to the core. At their heart is a gorgeously bluesy Adagio, where once again Kanneh-Mason finds the supplest and subtlest of touches and expansiveness of tone with which to hone its melancholic lines. Either side, the Allegro ben ritmico and Agitato are set ablaze by electrifying pianism and effusive razzmatazz.

The most exciting piece comes last, Barber’s astringent Piano Sonata in E flat minor, commissioned by Irving Berlin and Richard Rogers, written in 1950 and, from the outset, characterised by a modernity we don’t always associate with the same composer’s Violin Concerto or Adagio our Strings. 

The troubled landscape of the opening bars searching for distant resolution, a bubbling “scherzo” as translucent and nimble as any of Ravel’s, the soulful angularity of the slow movement melodies, and the waspish rigour of the final fugue find Kanneh-Mason in total control of her thoughts and of this difficult music. She nails it in every sense. Here, surely, is a talented musician approaching full bloom.
Ken Walton

Available to view on the Perth festival website.

BBC SSO / Gourlay / Kanneh-Mason

City Halls, Glasgow

IF conductor Andrew Gourlay was inspired to pursue his career when he was playing trombone with the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester under the baton of Claudio Abbado, he has clearly retained a love of good music for his original instrument.

The first half of this programme was a celebration of the USA’s Thanksgiving Day in 20th Century American music and the slide trombone was to the fore at the start and end of a very thoughtful sequence. Carl Ruggles, an associate of Charles Ives, started proceedings with three ‘bones joining four trumpets in the choir stalls, the sections led by the SSO’s top rank principals, Simon Johnson and Mark O’Keeffe. Far from a fanfare, “Angels” sounded distinctly Ellingtonian on the muted instruments, and, like the work that followed, seemed to have more to say than its brevity allowed.

Ruth Crawford Seeger has been rediscovered as a composer recently (as opposed to Pete and Peggy’s mom) and her arrangement of a string quartet’s slow movement as the Andante for String Orchestra might have been taken to ape Barber’s famous Adagio, if it did not pre-date it by five years – which begs an interesting parallel question. Again, it seems to suggest more than it delivers.

The African-American Julia Perry was a generation younger, but her Short Piece for Orchestra defies easy dating in its soundworld. Here were more thoroughly developed ideas, alongside the introduction of rhythm to the evening’s programme, as well as brass, winds, percussion and celesta. A student with both Boulanger and Dallapiccola, her vast catalogue is surely ripe for investigation; this was a chamber orchestra version of her score, but it was still full of vibrant detail and colour.

A further generation on, Alvin Singleton’s Cara Mia Gwen was commissioned by the Florida Orchestra to mark its 25th anniversary, but personal in inspiration, a memorial to his sister. The trombone had the first and last word here in a work in which the orchestral sections each had their own distinct role, and the chordal voicings again brought to mind the big band arrangements of Duke Ellington.

Perhaps only the SSO, even among the BBC’s orchestras with their varied diets, would have played that first half as a precursor to working with a fashionable young soloist on a repertoire classic. With her own Clara Schumann album selling well, pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason is recognisably more than the cellist’s older sister. Her way with Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto was a bit of a roller-coaster, but an enjoyable one. Her stated intention to be more playful than portentous was certainly fulfilled, and there was a great deal of interpretative individuality in her phrasing, as well as visible attentiveness to conductor and orchestra, rewardingly reciprocated.

There was also some technical imprecision however, alongside the lightness of touch in the faster passages, and a lack elsewhere of the dynamic nuance she had brought to the first movement cadenza.
Keith Bruce