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Classical Album of the Week: A Joyous Carnival of the Animals with All 7 Kanneh-Mason Siblings

December 28, 2020. You may know Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the young cellist who performed at the 2018 royal wedding, but did you know his six siblings also play classical music? In this season of family celebrations and traditions, our Classical Album of the Week is the debut recording of the Kanneh-Masons, ages 11 to 24, playing Saint-Saens's Carnival of the Animals and a new musical setting of Grandpa Christmas, a story by Michael Morpurgo.

There are so many reasons to love this album, with its delightful music, whimsical poetry and engaging performers. 

Listening to seven kids in the same family playing great music together with such technique and expressiveness is captivating. The fun they're having is contagious. The music they're making is enchanting.

Credit Jake Turney
The Kanneh-Masons

The Kanneh-Masons

Isata Kanneh-Mason, age 24, piano; Braimah Kanneh-Mason, age 22, violin; Sheku Kanneh-Mason, age 21, cello; Konya Kanneh-Mason, age 20, piano & violin; Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, age 18, piano & cello; Aminata Kanneh-Mason, age 15, violin and piano; Mariatu Kanneh-Mason, age 11, cello & piano

Also playing on the album: Ayla Sahin, violin; Timothy Ridout,viola; Toby Hughes, double bass; Adam Walker flute; Mark Simpson clarinet; Adrian Spillett, xylophone; Alasdaih Malloy, glass harmonica

The Music

Camille Saint-Saens composed the whimsical suite for a bit of fun in 1886, creating musical portraits of different animals, from the regal lion to ordinary hens and roosters; from an elephant to a cuckoo to fish circling in an aquarium. Concerned that the work might undermine his reputation as a serious composer, he forbade publication of it during his lifetime, except for The Swan, a piece for solo cello and piano, played here by Sheku, with Isata and Jeneba on two pianos:

The Poetry

In 1950, Columbia Masterworks released a recording by Andre Kostelanetz and His Orchestra, with Noel Coward reciting poems written for the work by Ogden Nash. For the Kanneh-Mason's album, Michael Morpugo, a former children's laureate, has composed wonderful short poems introducing each musical selection with ruminations of the animals represented, which he and actress Olivia Colman take turns narrating.

Colman, known to fans of the Netflix series, The Crown for her portrayal of the Queen of England, here in a delightful transformation, becomes a hen, a fish, a tortoise, and more.  

So before we hear the music, say, of the Aquarium, we hear Colman as the tiger fish pouting: "I don't like it in here, it's too quiet...But I have a face who comes to gaze at me, from the other side; a little face who sings to me, I can just hear it like a distant whale song, and that makes me happy again."

Then comes the music, vivid, lyrical, and mysterious.

As a kangaroo, Michael Morpugo proudly proclaims, " I am not just a hopper, a springer... we dance,we sing, we thump - the rhythm section of the outback. We make the music of our world, hear how we play."

In the music that follows, you can hear and imagine that kangaroo dancing.

As an introduction to the finale, the two narrators thank Saint-Saens, the animals, and the band. "Long live our lions and hens and tortoises and donkeys, and swans and elephants and kangaroos, and fish and birds, even cuckoos, and musicians, even conductors... "

Then comes the joyous musical conclusion: 

The album also includes Grandpa Christmas by Morpugo, narrated by the poet along with 11 year-old Mariatu Kanneh-Mason, and set to music with classical gems, including Tchaikovsky's Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy and Rimsky Korsikof's Flight of the Bumblebee (arranged by Rachmaninoff.)

Picking up on a tradition started by Sheku in his albums Inspiration and Elgar, the recording ends with a bonus track of specially arranged music from another genre. Here's Bob Marley's Redemption, arranged by the Kanneh-Masons.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.