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Blow the Wind Southerly (arr. Kanneh-Mason) [2.22]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Nimrod (from Enigma Variations) [4.00]
Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 [29.10]
Romance, Op.62 (arr. Parkin) [5.37]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
A Spring Song (from 4 Short Pieces for Violin and Piano, H104) (arr. Parkin) [2.16]
Scarborough Fair (arr. Parkin) [3.15]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Prélude, B.63 [4.52]
From Jewish Life: Prayer (No.1) (arr. Kanneh-Mason) [4.34]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Élégie in C minor, Op.24 (arr. Parkin) [7.35]
Julius KLENGEL (1859-1933)
Hymnus for 12 cellos, Op.57 [5.14]
Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 2019, Abbey Road Studios, London
DECCA 4850241 [68.55]

Despite the blunt title, ‘Elgar’ this is evidently designed as an opportunity to demonstrate Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s formidable skills and to appeal to the many fans of his musicianship. For buyers, the selling point may well be the performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Over the last year or so the cellist has given many performances of the work. I heard him live at the Proms, accompanied by the CBSO and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, and many will have listened this performance via television and radio.

To tackle the work brings immediate comparison with Jacqueline Du Pré’s classic recording with John Barbirolli (Warner 2564607600), coupled with Janet Baker’s superlative Sea Pictures. More recently there have been different but deeply insightful recordings by Stephen Isserlis (Hyperion CDA68077), Natalie Clein (Warner 2564607600), Alisa Weilerstein (Decca 4782735) and Paul Watkins (CHAN10709) - so no competition then! Part of the problem for any cellist is that this astonishing work, from Elgar’s Fittleworth Indian Summer, exposes the player to demonstrate a kaleidoscope of emotion, poetry, dignity yet also restraint. No performance can do all of this – Du Pré captures so much emotion and passion, and there is a depth to her performances (I heard her play this with Barbirolli and the Hallé: the memory remains vivid) which is unique. Clein, by contrast, emphasised the restraint and nobility, and was accompanied by another great Elgar conductor in Vernon Handley. Despite his admiration for Du Pré, Kanneh-Mason does not attempt a copy. His account is more restrained, technically secure and with a lovely rich tone. He and Rattle attempt an almost symphonic approach, with a strong sense of structure, to produce a genuinely interesting performance, rich in detail. But I was not as moved as by others: some passages were a little polite, some of the poetry a little too generalised. Isserlis remains my first choice, but I am glad to make the acquaintance of this new one. Make no mistake: this is a fine performance in the making by a musician of real substance. It will be interesting to hear how his insights develop over the years.

Just as Du Pré looms over memories of the Cello Concerto, so one cannot listen to ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’ without hearing Kathleen Ferrier. Kanneh-Mason approaches it as a warm, dignified piece, eloquent in restraint, to form a natural prelude to the Elgar to follow. I’m not sure ‘Nimrod’ needed to make an appearance, but it is neatly done, and the Romance has an Elgarian spirit, with a moving dignity. This piece could be an excuse for self-indulgence, but there is a classical restraint.

It is good to hear Bridge rather than a more ‘marketable’ composer. It really is a ‘short piece’ with a jolly opening and instant charm. It needs a certain lightness of touch as the melody develops – this performance is delightful throughout, and a real highlight of the disc.

Kanneh-Mason captures the poetry and something of the melancholy of Bloch, especially in the Prélude, which has an intense seriousness, sensitive to subtle shifts in mood. The arrangement of From Jewish Life: Prayer (No.1) has similar qualities – both technically secure and attentive to very subtle changes in mood and poetry.

Fauré was a great miniaturist and this performance of Élégie reveals those qualities of understated emotion and the ability to hold a long-breathed phrase without lapsing into the sentimental or indulgent. The result is very touching.

Outside cello circles, Julius Klengel is not well-known, despite a large output including four concertos for cello and two for double cello. His family was musical – his brother, Paul, was arguably even more versatile, and a fine composer. Julius joined the Leipzig Gewandhaus at 15, remaining for over 50 years (he became principal cellist at 22). His Hymnus has been several times recorded, notably by the Cellists of the Berlin Phiharmonic and by Steven Isserlis and the Cello Classics Ensemble (Cello Classics CC1024). As the name implies, this a serious,even melancholic piece, with a very atmospheric opening – almost a breaking dawn – leading to an expressive but dignified main theme, lovingly captured here.

My review copy came without notes, but the music speaks eloquently for itself.

Michael Wilkinson

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