Sheku Kanneh-Mason in a Fantasia Orchestra rehearsal earlier this year
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By David Nice
Wednesday, 21 December 2016
Sheku Kanneh-Mason isn't just BBC Young Musician 2016 - he's the year's top player in my books, a master at any level. Despite a contract with Decca, starting with the Shostakovich First Cello Concerto he played in the competition finale, he looks likely to remain loyal to family and friends, including the Fantasia Orchestra, founded this year, in which he's already played as part of the cello section.
You have to pinch yourself to realise the ages delivering this quality. Kanneh-Mason is 17, as was Mendelssohn when he composed the work of total genius which launched last night's concert; conductor Tom Fetherstonhaugh, currently Junior Organ Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, is 18; many of the players in the Fantasia are younger still, coming as they do from junior as well as senior conservatoire orchestras (another Kanneh-Mason, brother Braimah with whom Sheku spars so charmingly in the fabulous BBC documentary, is one of the first violins). Kanneh-Mason was, of course, in the limelight, and the original reason for heading out to a high church in Pimlico, but this concert delivered so much more.
Those strings, for a start: no orchestra sets out into the woods of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer Night's Dream Overture without some discipline and ability to master its flitting fairy music. These violins absolutely could, precise from the start, and there were even artistically portamento-d "hee-haw"s in the rude mechanicals' bergomask dance. The strings' buoyancy in Haydn's C major Cello Concerto was almost as much of a delight as Kanneh-Mason's playing (the cellist pictured above with the orchestra in rehearsal), and he acknowledged it by stepping back into what amounted to an obbligato role in the finale, keeping it light rather than showy.
The technical difficulty of the work can be disproportionate to its effect, but Kanneh-Mason's intonation was near-perfect, his dynamic shading kept us focused and he even managed to make the minor-key mood at the heart of the Adagio sound profound. So much of his artistry is akin to the lessons of bel canto; there were parallels with Lucy Crowe's feather-light coloratura the previous evening in the virtuoso runs, and he even emulated the singer's messa di voce, swelling a phrase to a peak and gracefully retreating, in some of the most fiendish writing.
This is an instinctive artist who seems fully-fledged already, like Bryn Terfel or Angela Gheorghiu at the start of their careers - but Kanneh-Mason is even younger. And he now has on permanent loan from Florian Leonhard Fine Violins the 1610 Amati which contributed to his success in the BBC final to gild his subtleties. Fetherstonhaugh, in a personable, confident speech, had apologised for the lack of Christmas theming in the programme, managing to justify the Mendelssohn by mentioning its use in seasonal ballets by Ashton and Balanchine. No need: we can all dream of summer nights in the dead of winter, and then up popped Holst's tune for "In the Bleak Midwinter" as theme for a nimble set of variations in Kanneh-Mason's encore, his own work (like the impressive first-movement cadenza in the Haydn).
By theartsdesk.com (@theartsdesk)
By theartsdesk.com (@theartsdesk)