Classical Album of the Week: Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason—Royal Wedding Soloist— Plays Elgar and More

Apr 6, 2020

April 6, 2020. It's spring, and time to celebrate new life in classical music. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, now famous for his performance in the May, 2018 Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle, is among the stars of a new generation honoring the past, and beckoning us to a bright future.

His second album, Elgar, recorded with Simon Rattle, the London Symphony Orchestra and The Heath Quartet, is our classical album of the week. 

Sheku's story is as engaging as his playing, and he shared it in a phone interview with WRTI's Susan Lewis. Born in 1999 in the UK, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is the third of seven children, all of whom play music, an apparent surprise to their parents. "They always loved music," says Sheku, "but it wasn't some massive plan to have seven children who are all musicians."

At age 6, Sheku began cello, liking the tone and "the amazing range of sounds;" at 9, he won a scholarship to the Junior Academy of the Royal Academy of Music; at 16, he was named BBC's Musician of the Year and signed a recording deal with Decca. His debut album, Inspiration, released with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, hit number one on the UK Classical Albums Chart three months before he performed in the Royal Wedding.

His second album, Elgar, is anchored by Elgar's Cello Concerto, which he says was the piece that made him excited about playing the cello when he was a young child. "It has so much emotion in it."

And there's lots more to love on this album: Sheku selected other pieces which were either also written by, or connected to, Elgar, "by being British composers or English folk songs, or written around a similar time."

And then a smile creeps into his voice. 

"Really, there's just some of my favorite pieces."

Tracks:

Trad: "Blow the Wind Southerly" (arr. By Sheku Kanneh-Mason)

Elgar: Nimrod (arr. Simon Parkin for solo cello and 5 cellos)

Elgar Cello Concerto: I Adagio

Elgar Cello Concerto: II Lento

Elgar Cello Concerto: III Adagio

Elgar Cello Concerto: IV Allegro

Elgar: Romance in D Minor

Frank Bridge: Spring Song

Traditional: Scarborough Fair (arr. Simon Parkin, for cello and guitar)

Ernest Bloch: Prelude B63

Ernest Bloch: Prayer No. 1 from "From Jewish Life"

Gabriel Faure: Elegie in C Minor

Julius Klengel: Hymnus op. 57 for 12 cellos Cello Concerto I

So there's Elgar's deeply moving Nimrod from the Enigma Variations, a movement that has become independently popular all over the world.  

Another of Sheku's favorites? Faure's Elegie. "I've always really loved Faure's music and it was also nice to record this piece in an arrangement that hasn't been done before... and I think brings an amazing range of color to this piece."

Speaking of arrangements, in each of his first two albums, Sheku has, in addition to the classical pieces, included his own arrangement of a tune from another genre. In the first album, it was Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry. In Elgar, it is Blow the Wind Southerly.

"It's a song I first heard about a couple of years ago and this amazing recording of Kathleen Ferrier from the 1940's is what inspired me to love this song. Her voice, I think, like the cello, has such a range of color ... its just for solo voice, and to really hear that voice is special. And I tried to bring that to the arrangement for solo cello."