Music

Sheku Kanneh-Mason: believe the hype about this young cellist

Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s new album was launched in lavish style, his image projected on to landmarks in London and New York. But Claire Jackson reckons the youthful cellist is deserving of all the fuss

Many of us have daydreamed about our own launch parties, where groundbreaking new tech or an era-defining book is unveiled as the champagne flows. The truth is, few projects today can justify such a fanfare. That is particularly true for classical music albums, which are increasingly self-funded and crowd- sourced. Patrons deserve reassurance that their contributions will be spent on studio time, rather than over-priced snacks for journalists. Most classical recordings are therefore released digitally or alongside a scheduled concert. 

But Sheku Kanneh-Mason isn’t your average classical musician. To trail the cellist’s latest album – a collection of works curated around Elgar’s cello concerto, performed with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle – record label Decca Classics arranged for a photograph of Kanneh-Mason to be projected on to landmarks in London, New York, Sydney, Beijing and Berlin. Then, the night before the release, there was a special screening of footage made during the recording sessions at Abbey Road – plus a live performance by the cellist. The Elgar album – which we spoke to him about in The Big Issue recently – was officially launched in Kanneh-Mason’s home town Nottingham, at the Royal Concert Hall.

Kanneh-Mason’s first album topped the classical charts and, unusually, the US iTunes pop chart.

It’s a lot for any artist to live up to, not least a 20-year-old student (Kanneh-Mason studies at the Royal Academy of Music). Repeated listening to his Elgar concerto (on vinyl, another marketing win for Decca Classics) shows that the young cellist lives up to the hype. Of course, his style will develop over time (he has hinted that he may record the work again in the future) but it’s worth remembering that one of the most beloved versions of the piece, made by Jacqueline du Pré in 1965, was also recorded when the cellist was 20.

Kanneh-Mason’s first album topped the classical charts and, unusually, the US iTunes pop chart. Of course, it helped that the cellist had just played one of the biggest gigs of 2018: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. This followed on from success at the 2016 instalment of BBC Young Musician of the Year, where he became the first black musician to win the competition. He’s just been appointed MBE in the New Year’s Honours list, and has been named as an ambassador of inner-city music charity, London Music Masters. Kanneh-Mason – along with his six musical siblings – is doing much to inspire young people to take up an instrument. The cello world finally has its own Lang Lang.

When you reach a certain level of stardom, all rules are there to be broken. Coldplay recently published details of their latest album Everyday Life in the classified section of the unsuspecting North Wales Daily Post. Radiohead famously made In Rainbows available as a pay-what-you-want download in 2007; a strategy virtually unheard of before the recession. It’s exciting, then, to see what Radiohead instrumentalist and composer Jonny Greenwood will do with his new record label Octatonic, which is dedicated to classical music. 

“I stand in awe of classically trained UK musicians: a 20-something carrying a cello case will always be more impressive than someone with a guitar. It’s just harder to do,” writes Greenwood on Octatonic’s website. “It takes more commitment, and the sounds they make are so limitless – for all that the instruments they play are ‘traditional’.”

The first releases include violinist Daniel Pioro performing JS Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D minor on one album, and Michael Gordon’s Industry and Jonny Greenwood’s Three Miniatures from Water on the other. Both are available on vinyl and in digital format. New recordings of music by Steve Reich are in the works, as well as more of Greenwood’s own unrecorded material.

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