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Inspiration - Sheku Kanneh-Mason, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

When Sheku Kanneh-Mason won the BBC Young Musician competition in 2016, aged seventeen, his playing entranced innumerable music-lovers around the UK. The cellist recorded his debut album which features Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1 in Birmingham and his hometown of Nottingham during two CBSO concerts conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. Winner of the Opus Klassik 2018 (Nachwuchskünstler des Jahres: Cello).Read more…

In Inspiration, Sheku pays tribute to the mentors and heroes who have spurred him on on his extraordinary journey, among them family, first teachers and, through recordings, three great twentieth-century cellists: Pablo Casals, Jacqueline du Pré and Mstislav Rostropovich. He is playing a Brothers Amati cello of c.1610 that is on loan permanently to him and is another source of inspiration: “I love exploring its sound and finding new colours in it”, he says.

Sheku won the BBC competition playing Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No.1. The work forms the album’s centrepiece, a recording taken from live performances with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and its dynamic young music director, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, at Symphony Hall, Birmingham and the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, Sheku’s home city.

“Mirga has an amazing ability to bring out the best energy in every player in the orchestra, so it was very inspiring to work with her”, Sheku says. “And the audiences were fantastic - particularly in Nottingham, as so many of my friends and family were there. This is one of my favourite cello concertos, but every time I play it, I think I find something new in it.”

Shostakovich’s music was much associated with Rostropovich (1927–2007): “He had an amazing power and intensity in his sound,” says Sheku, “and a special ability to sustain the line of the music throughout. It’s playing that really draws you in.”

The Nocturne from The Gadfly, shows another side of the Russian composer: “Its context is completely different - a film score - but it’s a wonderful, intense piece.”

Some shorter numbers are specially arranged by Tom Hodge for Sheku and the CBSO’s cello section. “My previous teacher, Ben Davies, was also able to join in. It was great to have him there”, Sheku says. The Jewish folk song Evening of Roses opens the programme: “At school I used to play in a Klezmer group, and I liked this piece so much that my teacher suggested making a solo cello arrangement. Tom has expanded it into a bigger version.”

“The Swan” by Saint-Saëns is from the composer’s much-loved Carnival of the Animals: “It was one of the first proper cello pieces I played when I was much younger”, Sheku says. “I used to listen to a recording of Jacqueline du Pré playing it, so it’s nice to come back to the piece and record it.” Du Pré’s tragic death of multiple sclerosis robbed the British music scene of one of its brightest stars. “She had such a natural way of expressing herself, and her sound especially I find incredible.”

He has included an Offenbach piece entitled, by coincidence, Jacqueline’s Tears, as “a tribute to the inspiration that Du Pré was for me”.

Song of the Birds, a Catalan folk song, became a signature piece for the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876–1973): “I listen a lot to Casals’ recordings, and I find his style of playing very interesting - it’s so different from what’s around today, but I’m learning a lot from his means of expression.”

In a second Casals favourite, Sardana, Sheku is joined by cellist Guy Johnston, whose career was similarly launched when he won the BBC competition in 2000. He has been an important mentor: “I first played to him when I was seven or eight and he gave a masterclass in Nottingham, and I’ve consulted him over the years”, says Sheku. “I remember sending him an email saying I was in the final; he had performed the Shostakovich in his final, and he offered to listen to me play. I loved working with him in this very difficult piece, full of Spanish dance rhythms.”

The album ends with Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry and Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. “My parents used to listen to Bob Marley in the car,” Sheku remembers, “and I’d say that outside classical music he’s one of my main influences. I was messing around in a practice room one day and came up with this arrangement. It sounds totally different from a reggae band, of course, but it’s great fun.” Finally, three more friends - two from the Royal Academy of Music where Sheku is studying - accompany him in the ever- popular Hallelujah.

Sheku hopes this recording will provide inspiration in turn for a young, diverse audience. “I’ve had amazing opportunities to learn music at the highest level, and I would love to see many more children have the opportunity to play an instrument, no matter how far they take it in future”, he says. “I always find it inspiring to see other young people at my concerts. If I represent something they can relate to, through which they can get into classical music, then that’s wonderful.”

- Jessica Duchen

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