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Review: Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason at Philharmonic Hall ****

This Sunday night recital concert was originally planned for the intimate confines of the Phil’s Music Room.

But such has been the meteoric rise in profile of superstar-in-waiting siblings Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason that the decision was taken early on to move it to the main hall.

And with an audience 10 times the size of the original capacity it was, it seems, a wise move.

The Phil’s other canny move took place longer ago when it spotted Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s potential ahead of the steep publicity curve which came with his performance at the Sussex’s Windsor wedding, securing him as a young artist-in-residence before he became classical hot property.

Now in his second season in the role, the younger Kanneh-Mason has developed a warm working partnership with the RLPO, and that familial relationship has widened to embrace elder sister Isata, who recorded Clara Schumann’s piano concerto with the Phil for her debut album Romance.

There are five more uber-talented Kanneh-Masons too (Sheku and Isata playing as a trio with violinist brother Braimah) – surely it's only a matter of time before we see the entire sibling septet on the stage in Hope Street?

On Sunday night that stage, normally a sea of musicians, instead formed a blank canvas of blond wood, bare but for a grand piano and two stools, occupied by pianist Isata – a slight, but sparkly silver mermaid - and cellist Sheku in trademark plain white shirt and natty socks.

Above: Isata Kanneh-Mason. Photo by Daniel Stroud Photography.

Top: Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Photo Lars Borges.

The programme showcased both the duo’s technical flair – particularly evident in the first half where they met the demands of Beethoven, Barber and Lutoslawski with seeming effortlessness (I say seeming because it takes talent and a lot of hard work to make anything seem effortless), and expressiveness which was given voice in Rachmaninov’s sonata after the interval.

Isata brought a surging energy to the opening movement of Beethoven’s cello sonata no 4, and a delicate – but steely – touch to its second. And while depth of tone was surrendered somewhat to technical virtuosity through the allegro vivace, brother Sheku produced an adagio of lovely mellow stillness and sweetness.

That depth of tone plunged to almost a growl in the opening bars of Lutoslawski’s Grave, a deftly performed piece of musical angles and sharp spikes and which marries an accelerando with an incremental rise in pitch from deepest bass to soprano voice.

Barber’s Sonata for Cello and Piano drew the first half to a close, the pair generating a good sense of motion and liveliness and Sheku’s cello creating a lovely, warm and texturally rich vocal line over Isata’s dynamic and powerful playing – together delivering a satisfyingly expressive and intense rolling wave of sound.

Rachmaninov produced his Sonata for Cello and Piano in the wake of his second piano concerto, and while it embraces the same radiance and romance it has rather sat in the shadow of the former’s success.

Cello and piano are equal collaborative partners, with the themes introduced on the keyboard and then expanded through the cello line.

Isata delivered the demanding piano part with a graceful, fast-flowing fluidity and technical panache, while Sheku showcased some lovely phrasing in the opening lento and brought real tenderness and lyricism to the sonata’s andante third movement.

He returns in June to play Saint-Saëns with the RLPO, and it’s to be hoped big sis Isata will also be on her way back to Hope Street sooner rather than later.

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