Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason talks about the music that shaped him

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Born in 1999, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is the most prominent cellist of his generation. After winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year award in 2016, in 2018 Sheku performed at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, and in 2020 he received an MBE for his services to music.

In addition to solo albums for Decca, Sheku has made recordings with his talented siblings. Indeed, the extraordinary story of the Kanneh-Mason family has been told in several television documentaries. Sheku’s solo album, Song, was released in September 2022 . That same month, Sheku was scheduled to perform at the The last night of the balls. However, the event was canceled following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

Here, Sheku talks about the music that shaped his life and career.

“I started playing the cello when I was six and Elgar’s cello concerto was the first piece of classical music I fell in love with and understood. Of course, my feelings towards the work changed as I got older – performing and recording it took my relationship with the work to another level of connection. It shaped who I am as a musician.

‘I listened to the Jacqueline du Pre constantly recording and when I was younger I guess I tried to copy her, but her way of playing and her interpretation is so individual that I learned more from her approach to music than specific things that she does with the room.

“We grew up listening to recordings of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Itzhak Perlman and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy. My brother Braimah plays the violin, my sister Isata plays the piano and I play the cello so I’m sure it’s no coincidence – it’s the music we were exposed to!

Quintet ‘The Trout’ by Schubert is another piece of my childhood, which I remember hearing especially during car journeys. My mom signed us up for a week-long swimming lesson for half a session, and the trip took about half an hour, exactly the length of “trout”. We listened to it twice a day for a week and I really got to know it. It’s such a happy song. We wanted Jeneba, our fifth brother, to learn the double bass just so we could play this piece, but my mother said, “No, it’s too big”. Jeneba now plays the piano!

“I had the chance to work intensely on Dvorak String Quartet No. 13 in G major when I was about 15 or 16, in an Easter chamber music class organized by MusicWorks. It’s full of character, variety, range, with some incredibly dark moments and some incredibly happy ones. It’s quite extreme. I only played there once because I don’t have a quartet that I play with regularly.

‘I played by Shostakovich Cello Concerto No. 1 for the BBC Young Musician competition in 2016, so you could say it changed my life, but I know Shostakovich more through his symphonies and string quartets. The breadth of his symphonies marked me so much, in particular No. 11. You have to give it all your attention, live it with all your being. It can be exhausting to listen to, but incredibly moving.

“My experience of symphonies comes mainly from listening because I haven’t played much in orchestras. I played in the cello section of Chineke! when I was 16 or 17. It was my first professional concert and we played Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – I learned so much being with this excellent orchestra. In 2017, I was the soloist at their BBC Proms concert, playing Dvořák’s Rondo in G minor.

‘The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and Simon Rattle are an incredible team – we recorded the Elgar Concerto together in 2020 and I recently played my first live gig with them in Trafalgar Square.

‘Mozart’s Requiem has always been my mother’s favorite piece and even as a child I loved it too. I could say it was full of tragedy, but some parts are so beautiful and touching, it’s just a masterpiece. My new album, Song, contains music that is personal to me and obviously my family had a strong influence – the folk tune, ‘Myfanwy’ – which I arranged for three cellos, is my Welsh grandmother’s favorite song. It’s nice to be able to create an album of all the music I’ve been listening to and thinking about for many years.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s Choices

Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85

Jacqueline du Pré (cello), London Symphony Orchestra/Barbirolli

Warner Classics 5555272

Schubert Piano Quintet in A major, D667, “The Trout”

DVD with Daniel Barenboim (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Jacqueline Du Pré (cello), Zubin Mehta (double bass), Andreas Schmidt (piano), Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)

Christopher Nupen Films A13CND

Dvorak String Quartet No. 13 in G major, Op. 106

Pavel Haas Quartet

Supraphone SU40382

Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 in G Minor, Op. 103

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Bychkov

Philips 4209352

mozart Requiem in D minor, K626

Dutch Radio Choir & Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jansons

RCO Live RCO14002

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