Thursday, July 25

Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs Weinberg – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra

I don’t know how many people my age will remember what they were doing on their 25th birthday.  I certainly don’t – probably some real ale bar in Oxford with sticky floors and beer at £2 per pint.  But Shekhu Kanneh-Mason, superstar cellist and the third of seven ridiculously talented musician siblings, may well remember the rapturous reception (and impromptu rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’) he received from the audience at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall last night on the occasion of his reaching a quarter-century.

The curtain-raiser was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade for Orchestra.  Born in London in 1875 to an English mother and Sierra Leonean medical student father, Samuel was named after the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  When the Three Choirs Festival wished to commission a work for their 1898 edition, first-choice and Worcester local Edward Elgar pleaded lack of time, and suggested that the Festival organisers ask Coleridge-Taylor (‘far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men’, he said) instead.  What a great recommendation that was, and what a dramatic opening to this concert, with crisp and precise wind and brass interpolations and lush, lyrical string and horn melodies. 

Next up was Weinberg’s Cello Concerto, composed in 1948 but not performed until 1957.  Fleeing Poland to escape Nazi occupation, Weinberg eventually settled in Moscow but was affected by Stalin-era anti-Jewish sentiment.  He was even arrested (on somewhat spurious charges) but, following Stalin’s death, attitudes softened and the work was eventually performed with Mstislav Rostropovich as the soloist.  Tonight we had cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 and former RLPO Young Artist in Residence, who wowed the capacity audience with the sheer range of his musicianship, first delicate and  graceful, then muscular and powerful.  The first movement alone is a stamina-sapping exercise in long, sustained playing, whist Kanneh-Mason demonstrated his agility in some of the rapid passagework of the second movement.  An extended and captivating cadenza in the third movement highlighted the crystal-clear acoustic of the Philharmonic Hall and led to a warm and sustained ovation.

It takes a lot to steal the limelight from such an accomplished performance, but the RLPO’s rendition of Elgar’s First Symphony, under the baton of Principal Guest Conductor Andrew Manze, did just that.  It was a magnificent, spine-tingling performance of rare quality, the rich, fulsome string melodies interspersed with dramatic and chromatic brass interventions.  And the violins, at once rich and melodic in their lower register then seamlessly moving to their stratospheric heights, make the first movement alone an emotional rollercoaster.  When, at the end of the last, the opening theme returns we can, in turn, reflect on the ageless power of music to move the soul.

And whether this music comes from a greying, Edwardian patriarch with an impressive waxed moustache, from a twentieth-century Jewish emigré or from a mixed-race boy raised in Croydon in late-Victorian England, or from the bow of a young prodigy from Nottingham via Antigua and Sierra Leone, the sheer emotional range of this concert was a joy to behold.

And you don’t have to worry if you missed it – it will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Monday 22 April at 7.30, or you can catch it afterwards on BBC Sounds.  Tune in or miss out.

Reviewer: Mark Humphreys

Reviewed: 4th April 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.