Since bursting onto the scene in 2016 as the 17-year-old winner of the prestigious BBC Young Musician competition, Sheku Kanneh-Mason has dedicated himself to revealing the cello’s charms to as broad an audience as possible. His debut album, 2018’s Inspiration, mixed Shostakovich’s mighty Cello Concerto No. 1 with a clutch of compelling shorter pieces, including imaginative arrangements of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” and “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. In 2020, he repeated the formula with Elgar, pairing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor with English folk song and beautiful classical miniatures for cello and orchestra. For his latest album, Song, Kanneh-Mason takes his eclectic approach one step further, exploring no less than 17 pieces. Pillars of the repertoire, including Beethoven’s 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” and the sensuous second movement of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1, are placed alongside some of his own arrangements of everything from Bach to Bacharach. Moments such as the beautiful pop song Same Boat, composed by Kanneh-Mason and his friend, the singer-songwriter Zak Abel, provide striking diversions from the classical path. “I wanted to pick music that demonstrates the cello’s ‘voice,’” Kanneh-Mason tells Apple Music. “When they first hear the cello, a lot of people feel it is talking to them, and when we’re learning to play it, we’re taught to think about how you would sing a phrase. I find it really helpful to consider all that when I’m playing.” Being one of seven musically gifted children, Kanneh-Mason usually has an ensemble at his fingertips, but for Song, he’s chosen to work with only one of his siblings, his sister Isata, an emerging pianist in her own right with two Decca albums already to her name. She accompanies her brother on Stravinsky’s Chanson russe, two of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, and the Beethoven Variations. Unsurprisingly, the pair play with a natural rapport, while throughout the album Kanneh-Mason displays that rare gift: an ability to draw the listener into his soundworld with the subtlest, most sensitive playing. “I’ve always seen performance as sharing the music with the people around you,” he explains. “Allowing them to experience and love the music as much as you do is my motivation. Whether that always works, I don’t know, but that’s how I try to perform.” Read on, as Sheku Kanneh-Mason shares his thoughts about each track on this, his most personal album to date. Star of the County Down “The album starts with the sound of a solo cello playing a melody that is so very pure. I was looking through some folk tunes and felt this piece would work beautifully with no harmony, no messing about—just the melody. It’s nice to play in that way because, often, my repertoire requires an intensity of sound and a variety of tone, whereas with this piece, it’s all about purity and subtlety.” Myfanwy “Myfanwy is such a beautiful song. I grew up listening to it and singing it as a child. It’s a piece I always find very moving and one that Welsh people often sing. It’s like a second national anthem. As a Welsh person, it’s impossible not to know it and love it.” Lullaby for Kamila “This is one of the original tunes the violinist Nigel Kennedy and the Kroke band recorded for their album, East Meets East. It’s a beautiful melody and the first tune that me and Harry [Baker, jazz composer and pianist] jammed on when we first started playing together. Essentially, our recording is just one take of a free improvisation where we twist and stretch the piece. I love how it’s written in seven beats to the bar. It gives it an ongoing, continuous feel that’s really good for improvising.” Bachianas Brasileiras No. 1: 2. Prelúdio (Modinha) (Villa-Lobos) “Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras are a homage to the Baroque composer JS Bach, but with an unmistakable Brazilian flavor. This particular movement is incredibly evocative and expressive, and it was a joy to record with the ensemble too. I think, maybe, it’s my favorite track!” 12 Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen”, Op. 66 (Beethoven) Beethoven is at his most humorous, funny, and characterful here—it’s music that I love playing. The theme is by Mozart, and Beethoven twists it but enjoys and delights in it too. I love all of the variations, and I think that, apart from the two minor ones, it’s all positive energy. It’s not a serious piece—the world’s not going to end!” Songs without Words, Op. 62: No. 1, Andante espressivo Song without Words, Op. 109 (Mendelssohn) “Mendelssohn’s Op. 109 in D Major is the piece that I played for my music exams—I’ve loved it since I was a child. It’s beautiful and very expressive music. Op. 62 is less-known, but there’s a cool recording of it by one of my favorite cellists, Gregor Piatigorsky, and it’s how I got to know it. I thought both pieces would make a nice pairing.” Elégie for Soprano, Cello and Piano (Massenet) “On an album called Song, it’s nice to have someone singing! It’s wonderful to work with the soprano Pumeza Matshikiza. She’s lovely and so cool! As a cellist, I haven’t performed much with operatic voices, but when I’m working with someone like Pumeza, it really inspires my playing.” Chanson russe (Stravinsky) “The piano part is written such that it sounds like it’s two beats to the bar, but the time signature changes almost every single bar. So, you have the downbeats landing but not where they feel they should be. It’s like a march, but there’s something slightly twisted about it. It has a complaining but determined character, which is cool. I love it.” Come, Sweet Death, BWV 478 Savior of the Nations, Come, BWV 659 (JS Bach) “I enjoyed arranging these pieces. Playing in a cello ensemble is something very special, and this music is really amazing. It’s timeless. I feel like Bach can sit alongside so many different styles of music and still work. Of the two, Come, Sweet Death was the most difficult to arrange and to play: Bach originally scored the accompaniment to the melody for keyboard, so a lot of the intervals are quite awkward for the cello.” Quartet for the End of Time: V. Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus (Messiaen) “This is one of my favorite movements from Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, although the whole work is incredibly powerful. This movement is like a moment where time really does stop. To play it, you have to really slow down your heart rate, which is difficult in performance. It’s why I put it in the middle of the album as a central point.” Cry Me a River “Harry and I do a lot of improvising together. It’s a different but beautiful way of making music. We record the music in a different way too. Everything is done in complete takes because we’re composing, I guess, in the moment. It’s really fun to do it this way, and we just pick out our favorite!” Falling in Love Again “I recorded this with my teacher Hannah Roberts—her husband Simon composed the arrangement. Obviously, he knows how well my teacher can play and likes to challenge us both, so the arrangement is very challenging, very virtuosic. But yeah, it’s good fun, for sure!” Preludes I-V (Finnis) “Edmund Finnis is a fabulous composer who writes so well for my instrument. He played the cello to a reasonably high level, so he understands not only what works on it, but also what feels good. He gives you the freedom to express yourself. It’s very subtle and honest music. Each prelude is very short and direct and gets to the heart of what it wants to express. I think that’s quite difficult for a composer—to write a short piece that really conveys something immediately.” Same Boat (Sheku Kanneh-Mason & Zak Abel) “I wrote this song and the lyrics with Zak. We’re good friends and jam together. The idea to write the song came quite naturally—we just thought it would be nice to do something official. I call it a pop song, but I definitely didn’t want to use any sounds that weren’t all done from the cello. I didn’t want to do anything outside of what I do. The song recognizes we all have different experiences but that we’re here for each other.” I Say a Little Prayer (Bacharach) “I love this tune. It’s a genius piece of songwriting. To end as we began, with the sound of just a solo cello, gives the album a nice arc.”

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