Music Reviews

Album Review: Sheku Kanneh-Mason – Inspiration

Sheku’s new album, Inspiration, represents something of a change of pace, certainly for myself, and I presume for most of those listening. Sheku has a lot of musical buzz; winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 and completing his grade 8 in cello by the age of 9 (putting my grade 6 guitar by 16 into perspective).

I only first heard of him from the side of the number 36 bus. First, I would like it noted that the aesthetic of the bus adverts are a vast improvement on the album art. But shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, which is good, because if we did it’d already be on minus points.

I think it’s worth reminding people that you should try to see classical artists physically perform, these aren’t original compositions so its very much about how the artists interpret them. Certainly the videos of Sheku performing renditions of ‘Hallelujah’ (the closing piece of the album) as well as his performance of Rachmaninovs : Morceaux de Fantaisie ‘Elegie’, are worth experiencing to see Sheku’s magnetic intensity.

“Unforgettably powerful”

The opening tracks are ones which have rarely left my mind since first listening to this album. Certainly, the deep bass tones drawn out of the cello in ‘Evening of Roses’ are unforgettably powerful. This reworking of Josef Hadar’s was a fantastic starting point for the album, the piece itself reminiscent of a fiery love scene and the passion is implicit in every stroke.

It is difficult to miss the deep breaths that Sheku is taking on the recording. The result is a wonderfully dramatic piece, if you listen to just one track on this album make this the one. Before things get too steamy Sheku follows with ‘The Swan,’ a gorgeous movement from Saint-Saëns’ Carnaval des animaux, a mainstay on most cellists repertoires. Hearing that sweeping melody its easy to see why.

Typically a duet between cello and piano, the piece has been rearranged for harp which gives the plucked chords a rolling quality which recalls water beautifully. Sheku’s cello then acts as a counterpoint, cutting softly through those background chords much in the way a swan might.

‘Song of the Birds’ fails to hit the same moving heights as its two predecessors, but that’s not to be too down on it. Sheku’s performance throughout is striking and emotive. This has the feel of a bridging piece, one of technical difficulty, but the result is somewhat lost on the layman listener like myself.

“Shows off Sheku’s mastery of the cello”

With that begins Sheku’s work with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, doing two separate Shostakovich arrangements. ‘The Gadfly Suite’ again suffers from not being as attention grabbing as the first two, although still a lovely piece in which the latter half shows off Sheku’s mastery of the cello excellently well.

To remedy this potential lull, Sheku hits back with a punchy opening to a 4-track movement, again by Shostakovich, which is held by many as one of the most difficult cello arrangements out there. The sweat of each note is easy to imagine, as the staccato chords demonstrate not just Sheku’s musical might but also his wonderful dynamism. ‘The Allegretto’ suite features some charming interplay between himself and a bold horn section. All marry and compete into a rather eclectic movement but enjoyable none the less.

‘The Moderato’ movement starts slowly, sometimes you forget that the cello even features. A whimsical piece which at the very least displays how excellent a composer Shostakovich is. The piercing strings that close out the track are equal parts charming and haunting. Whilst perhaps not the most dramatic track on the album it remains interesting throughout.

“‘The Cadenza’ is a peaceful addition”

Following this, ‘the Cadenza’ operates as a mini-suite in and of itself. The melody is reminiscent of the ‘Evening of Roses.’ The dynamic range of this piece makes me wish that I could see it live, the drama of it falls slightly flat not seeing Sheku in the flesh. Overall ‘the Cadenza’ is a peaceful addition, its technicality is not lost, without sacrificing any enjoyment from a layman.

Same cannot be said for the ‘Allegro con moto’ meaning cheerful with spirit, and it’s certainly spirited; the constant pulsating of Sheku’s cello and the spiralling feel of both the lead and supporting orchestra is very technically impressive. But the higher tones can be piercing, another track that feels like it should be used more often as film score. Dripping with drama and character, but perhaps not one to relax with.

“Feels like a lot of the sections are competing with each-other”

‘The Harmonie des Bois’ is a very bitter sweet track. The piece itself isn’t all that complicated but the fact it remains captivating is testament to the quality of Sheku as a cellist, a wonderful listen but not one I can expand on more. The following piece, ‘Sardana’, lacks the charm of its predecessors, and feels like a lot of the sections are competing with each-other certainly within the middle portion.

To close the whole album are two reworkings of pop songs. As a Bob Marley sceptic no-one cares what I have to say about ‘No Woman No Cry.’ But this seems a competent send-up of one of Sheku’s musical idols. The rattling strokes he gives in the middle portion, whilst technically difficult, don’t add to the arrangement. ‘Hallelujah’ is something of a cheap shot, an easy way to add some emotional dynamism into any sort of album. Sheku certainly does the emotion justice in a wonderfully tasteful rendition of the track.

Overall Sheku has put together a perfectly enjoyable album. One that I’m not perfectly sure is my cup of tea, but it’s difficult not to appreciate the level of artistry and talent he has. I hope this acts not so much as a review for the reader but an invocation to give it a try and some things to listen out for to hopefully help you enjoy it a little bit more.


Jack Tuckey

Image Courtesy of The Kanneh-Masons Official Webpage

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