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Classical Album of the Week: Who Inspired Young Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason?

August 27, 2018. Nineteen-year old British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason has been riding a media wave since winning the BBC Young Musician competition in 2016. Millions watched his performance this past May at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Sheku’s debut recording, Inspiration, released earlier this year by London-Decca, is our album of the week.

Inspiration reveals a young musician with eclectic musical interests and an assured richness of sound, in repertoire ranging from Offenbach to Bob Marley.

Make no mistake, though, the album aims for seriousness—its centerpiece is Shostakovich’s challenging Cello Concerto No. 1. 

The recording of the four-movement work is taken from live performances given by Sheku and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Mirga Gražinyt?-Tyla. Sheku brings a surprising lightness to the biting and sardonic first and last movements of the concerto, and a lyrical expansiveness to the expressive middle movements.

Inspired by the recordings of late British cellist Jacqueline du Pré, Sheku uses her performance of Saint Saëns’ perennial favorite “The Swan” as a model, and delivers an interpretation of elegance and simplicity. He pays further tribute to du Pré in Jacques Offenbach’s “Jacqueline’s Tears.”

The inspiring example of Pablo Casals is represented in two compositions: “Song of the Birds” and “Sardana.” The great Casals was famous for a sense of freedom and a distinctive “sound of the human voice” in his playing. Sheku’s performances of the master’s works are more careful, yet possess beautiful tone and a youthful sincerity.

Global inspirations round out this debut release. From Israel there’s Yosef Hadar’s “Evening of Roses.” From Jamaica, comes the Bob Marley hit, “No Woman, No Cry”—music Sheku’s parents used to play in the car.

The final cut is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song that’s captivated artists across many genres. Sheku’s performance is accompanied by three of his fellow students at the Royal Academy of Music. It’s a rendition of simplicity and wistfulness, ending with a feeling of anticipation that there’s much more to come.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.