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Review: Sheku Kanneh-Mason performs Weinberg at Philharmonic Hall ****1/2

While Philharmonic Hall has, it seems, become a happy home-from-home for several of the talented Kanneh-Mason family over the past few years, it’s cellist Sheku who forged the way.

And from 2018, when as a 19-year-old fresh from playing in front of the world’s TV viewers (at THAT Windsor wedding) he arrived at Hope Street as the Phil’s young artist in residence, to this latest appearance on the Phil stage – the occasion coinciding with his 25th birthday, it’s proved a real pleasure to watch his career progress and enjoy hearing his maturing musical voice.

This Thursday night concert also had a feeling continuity in the relationship between orchestra and soloist, with the same conductor – the genial, encouraging Andrew Manze – who was on the box six years ago when a teenage Kanneh-Mason played Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

Then, the young cellist showed the exemplary technique which had already made him one to watch, although his tone was still perhaps to fully mellow and intensify. Now both have come together in impressive harmony.

Not for Elgar this time though, but instead the little-played Weinberg Cello Concerto, last heard in Liverpool when it was performed by Jonathan Aasgaard in 2019.

Weinberg, born into a Jewish family in Warsaw, fled Poland ahead of the invading German army in September 1939, arriving in Russia as a 20-year-old refugee. His parents and sister were not so lucky, and the long shadow of that war would be cast across the works he composed.

His Cello Concerto in C minor, premiered by Rostropovich in 1957, is shot through with Jewish and folkloric musical themes, brought vividly to life here by Kanneh-Mason and with sympathetic accompaniment from the Phil under Manze’s delicate direction.

Above: Sheku Kanneh-Mason and conductor Andrew Manze backstage. Top: Performing Weinberg's Cello Concerto. Photos by Gareth Jones.

The opening adagio came with solemn, yearning - almost keening, cello winding above the pulsing tread of strings, while the moderato second movement saw soloist and orchestra circling each other in what appeared almost a tarantella – albeit in luscious minor key with a hint of Anatevka at the edges and some toothsome bass notes from solo cello at its conclusion.

Kannah-Mason also delivered in the whip-quick Polish folk dance-infused third movement, skipping lightly over the crisp orchestral accompaniment, along with a sweetly wrought singing theme and some expressive double-stopping in the extended cadenza. An allegro finale offered both febrile restlessness, but also a satisfying return to the quiet eloquence of the concerto’s opening bars.

Elgar did also get in on the act however in the form of the composer’s First Symphony , the meaty and majestic - and yet also at times emotionally intense - work delivered with both pomp and circumstance, blistering attack and delicate lyrical moments by the Phil under Manze’s expansive baton and often beatific expression.

If down the road, Liverpool were thrashing Sheffield United 3-1, in Hope Street the orchestra were also walking on through the storm (with a spot of sweet, silver song of the lark for good measure).

Above: Andrew Manze and members of the Orchestra. Photo by Gareth Jones.

The evening opened in vibrant fashion, and complete with a Fantasia-like flourish of the baton from Manze, with a youthful Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Ballade (another Elgar link, it having been commissioned for the Three Choirs Festival on the older composer’s recommendation).

An epic in miniature, the Ballade is chock full of juicy melodies which migrate through a series of key changes, a lovely Romantic theme through the strings, and a finale given plenty of va va voom from an orchestra clearly enjoying itself.

Apparently, this is the season where some of the RLPO’s longest-serving players are due to hang up their bows or put away their mouthpieces.

One is first violinist Alex Marks, and his 38 years at Hope Street were celebrated before the start of the concert with a picture presentation, and a few words from the man himself who spoke about how privileged and fortunate he had been to “have a job I’ve loved, surrounded by a great bunch of people” in an orchestra with a unique spirit. He also, in a quiet way, highlighted how in a world seemingly ‘gone mad’, music goes beyond words and reminds us of a shared humanity.

Hear hear to that.


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