It occurred to me that the two December professional concerts in Leicester, one at DMH and one at the Museum, could have together been given the title’ The times they are a’changin.’ In the first, we had the young woman conductor Elim Chan directing a superb Philharmonia Concert. In the second three even younger musicians, all from the Kanneh-Mason family of Nottingham and playing as the Kanneh- Mason Piano Trio, gave truly astonishing performances of Beethoven’s Piano Trio Op.1 No.3 and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No.2.
Classical music has a long history of prodigies, occasionally two or more from the same family. However, as the sell out audience at the Museum bore witness to , never to the best of my knowledge has the classical music scene witnessed a more extraordinary story than the one which emerged after Sheku Kanneh- Mason won the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year competition and thus became the first black person to do so. There followed a BBC documentary about his family and their passion for classical music, in which it became clear that, though Sheku clearly seemed already capable of having a career on the international stage, there were other major talents in the family, notably his elder sister, the pianist Isata, and his elder brother, violinist Braimah, who together with Sheku constituted the Trio.
In a way then one should not have been surprised at the quality of the playing. Of course, the cello playing was a given but one of the finer things about these performances was that it was in perfect accord with the other two players. Then I remembered that one, the pianist Isata, had, as a very young and diminutive girl who at the time was almost dwarfed by the Steinway she was playing, performed in the Museum a decade ago as one of four finalists of a young pianist’s Competition held in Uppingham. I remembered that , whilst three were obviously very good for their age, no such allowances needed to be made for her and afterwards a number in the audience prophesied great things. They were right. She is now, together with her equally talented violinist brother, at the Royal Academy of Music.
No surprise then that we were listening to individual music making of a high order. That said ,though, there was cause for surprise, not to say amazement. Perhaps it was down to long family bonding but the balance, the refinement of the sound, combined above all else with a sense of youthful pleasure at making music resulted in a concert which was very much something else. As I get older, I find that this precious quality found in very talented young performers is worth every bit as much as the supposed wisdom which comes with age. Indeed, increasingly I wonder whether in middle age some fine artists, so concerned have they become to deliver everything in the music, find it difficult to preserve the quality so vital in live performance, a sense of the simple spontaneous joy at the power of great music.
That joy was here very evident from the beginning of the Beethoven. One was immediately struck at times by the liquid tone of the piano and the sense of balance with the other two players. Not that the energy of much of this music was not thrillingly conveyed but what I particularly admired was the way it was being played as early and not middle Beethoven. Here the performance was at times slightly at odds with the occasional programme note. For instance, in the latter the third movement was described as music which was ‘ tense and edgy’. What was conveyed in this performance was the sheer high spirits of the music, very much the composer still under the influence of Haydn. I am all for being reminded that the young and even at times the old Beethoven could be as witty and as humorous as his mentor. Again in the last movement the Trio I felt found more variation of dynamics ,of mood, of light and shade than the movement’s ‘blunt energy’ referred to in the programme. Conversely , the second theme as played here emerged as rather more than a ‘relaxed interlude’, so delightful was the playing. However, that said, the eruption towards the end of the movement was played with an explosive force which did indeed look forward to revolutionary times.
So, it was no surprise that the Trio should prove able to handle the enormous range of utterance within the Shostakovich Trio. Here the cello was to the forefront more often and one could see in such moments as the terrifyingly weird cello sound at the opening of the piece and the part the instrument plays in the searing climax towards the end of the last movement just why firstly Sheku should have chosen a Shostakovich concerto for the BBC final and secondly why he should have won the competition. For a moment one wondered whether the ghost of Rostropovich was amongst us.
However, the work is not a concerto for cello. It covers a huge range of feeling but so often it is music that is raw on the nerves and the composer never flinches from leaving each instrumentalist fearsomely exposed at times. Suffice to say that the composer’s intentions were fearlessly communicated and this listener’s nerves at least were duly shredded. The bitter, sardonic moments in the score were conveyed with cracking force but as impressive was how in the third movement, for instance, the extended construction of the poignant passacaglia was effortlessly maintained. How interesting that Shostakovich and Britten, arguably the two greatest composers of the mid 20c. and who sometime after the composition of this work became close friends, should both have been drawn to this form quite separately.
After a prolonged ovation from the audience, these superbly talented young artists played as an encore Coleridge-Taylor’s eloquently simple setting of ‘Deep River’, just to remind us perhaps that there has been a past and hopefully will be an expanding future for black classical musicians.