During a period in which a pandemic has restricted communication, both verbal and musical in nature, brother-sister cellist and pianist duo Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason performed a program of chamber works rich in interaction, comprised of works by Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, and Rachmaninoff, that spanned the widest possible breadth of the Romantic period.
In their Nov. 29 performance, recorded from their family home in Nottingham, England, and presented as the second in a series of watch parties from Princeton University Concerts, the Kanneh-Masons highlighted the importance of getting “a lot out of the music” and “first [gravitating] towards pieces we love” in their programming. The pandemic has forced many in the music community to step into the shoes of the audio engineers themselves, splicing and enmeshing musical recordings in an attempt to maintain some semblance of the magic of chamber music that all of us, in some capacity, have come to sorely miss. Having been inundated in past months with these stopgap measures, no matter how well done they might have been, it truly felt all the more rewarding to see a chamber performance in such close quarters, doubly as chilling as it might have been otherwise.
The first piece on the program, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in C major for cello and piano (Op. 102, No. 1), mvt. 1. Andante — Allegro vivace, is introduced by a standalone, deceptively simple theme that belies considerable musical difficulty in its understated nature. Sheku’s treatment of the opening was appropriately delicate: energetic, promising, and yet restrained, a trait common to many of the musically-labyrinthine works in Beethoven’s late period.
In fact, it is the Kanneh-Masons’ exceptional understanding of Beethoven’s infamously elusive musical language that makes them stand out in a crowded list of interpreters. One couldn’t help but be blown away by how, for example, Sheku illustrated the nuances of a single phrase in the color transition — within a matter of seconds! — from enraged and brash to doubtful and introspective, his vibrato following the color change with unparalleled speed.
Despite the fact that Beethoven’s compositional focus shifted from the piano as a solo instrument to a more balanced division of melody and harmony between the cello and piano over the course of his five piano-cello sonatas, the piano is given countless opportunities to stand out throughout all five. It is during these moments that Isata’s impeccable technique shone through, as well as the compelling musical balance shared between the duo: Sheku never needed to compromise the dynamic changes or musicality of his line in order to give way to Isata’s, and their unique rapport brought a special cascading sense to the sequential passages of the Allegro vivace in particular.
Without rest, the duo moved on to “The Swan,” the penultimate movement from Saint-Saëns’s “The Carnival of the Animals.” Sheku’s tone was notable for being completely different from what one was led to expect from the assertive aggression of the Beethoven: Here, it took on a pillowy, dreamy texture, as if his bow was gliding effortlessly across the cello. There is an irony to the sheer level of difficulty that cellists face in doing true musical justice to such a technically simple piece, as if a sense that the sheer amount of practice it would require to accomplish what Sheku did here with such facility would be on par with any large-scale concerto, making his success in creating such picture-perfect musical imagery all the more impressive.
Here, Isata led the way in terms of phrasing from the movement’s outset, carrying a steady, gorgeous musical line that buoyed Sheku’s graceful playing to new heights. Moreover, her almost-imperceptible pauses and halts in phrasing added a miraculous sheen that is so often lost: pianists, just as often as cellists, all too often find difficulty in parsing through this piece’s simplicity in order to discover the incredible depths and intricacies that its placid surface belies. Sheku’s choice to repeat the opening theme on the D string upon its repetition was crucial in setting up the climax of the piece, and yet there was something miraculous about how restrained and shockingly unflustered it eventually was.
However, I found this particular performance of “The Swan” to be surprisingly self-effacing in nature; for a performer whose main strength lies in an unbelievably compelling voice and tone, Sheku seemed to inject very little of that sense into his playing here. As a result, while listening to these pieces, I got the sense that they were played exactly as they were written in all of their beauty, but absent the distinctive sense of unattainably heartrending beauty that I had the opportunity of enjoying in the Rachmaninoff that followed.
Both Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano (Op. 19) and the Beethoven which the Kanneh-Masons performed earlier in the program are unique for the unadorned cello lines with which they open. It was truly a treat to see Sheku’s phrasing so movingly absorbed in these lines, while Isata’s excellent phrasing not only created the perfect backdrop to Sheku’s individual voice but also served as a powerful voice in its own right.
Sheku is notable for not being afraid in the slightest to play with the listener’s sense of vibrato, a technique that has caused many a string player headaches over in attempting to strike the apposite balance between leaving a phrase unnecessarily flavorless and browbeating the listener with overblown, bombastic undulation. For example, he leaps into techniques that others would find almost shocking, such as fully senza vibrato passages that give the tone and pitch their full attention without any interference. In a less seasoned player’s hands, such a daring step might come off as careless or unrehearsed; in his, it’s simply perfect. (A contrary technique is his flying, electric vibrato during the descending pizzicato octaves of the first movement, which give a normally less-colorful passage an incredible, shivering energy.)
Following a brilliantly virtuosic second movement that exposed the robust technique underlying the musicality of the Kanneh-Masons, the duo closed the concert with the ending two movements of the Rachmaninoff: an iconic Andante in the distant key of E-flat major, followed by the closing Allegro mosso in the parallel key of G major. The interesting thing about Sheku’s voice, both here and elsewhere, is that it’s actually not perfect by technical standards: Notes are pushed to their very limit on the bow and sometimes exceed them; string crossings are rough, unpolished, and energetic; and yet, the playing is more compelling for it. Gone is the burnished sound of classic cellists like Fournier or Feuermann; no longer do we really get a sense of the Rostropovich-esque “model” recording — what really stood out in the performance was how the piece, in being uniquely a true-to-the-music representation of the composer, be it Beethoven or Rachmaninoff, was likewise uniquely a performance by the Kanneh-Masons.
As a listener who knows the Rachmaninoff beyond recognition, the truly incredible thing about the Kanneh-Masons’ playing is that it gives the listener everything that they expect, while being bundled up in such a way that it feels shockingly new — unanticipated yet welcome. Their consistently perfect synchronization, segueing from melody to accompaniment and then back again, allowed for a stretching of the lush phrasing in the third movement that would be out of the question for a less in-sync duo, with Isata sometimes letting harmonies hang suspended in the ear for absurdly long amounts of time so as to accommodate for Sheku’s playing. The recital drew to a close with the infectious excitement of the fourth movement, the gradually increasing intensity of the duo’s playing an ideal way to breathe new life into an oft-repeated theme of relative musical simplicity.
Being able to hear the Kanneh-Masons perform in their own home highlighted the unique intimacy and energy of their playing, returning our understanding of chamber music as listeners to a different world: not only one preceding the pandemic, but one where the notion of “chamber music” referred, in literal terms, to the intimate-setting rooms for which these pieces were composed. As the music world cautiously reopens, perhaps it would do well to consider the example that performances like these have set for diversifying our notion of how both different venues and different attitudes can positively alter our perceptions of performance.