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Review: Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays Dvorak with the RLPO ****1/2

The BBC has just announced that Sheku Kanneh-Mason will perform Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with the Phil at the Proms this summer.

But if you’re not able to be at the Royal Albert Hall in September, you don’t have to miss the experience completely as orchestra and soloist have already come together to perform it for this ‘On Demand’ concert specielly recorded at Hope Street in April.

The rising star cellist was one of the last people to perform at the hall before lockdown last spring when he joined sister Isata – following him as the RLPO’s young artist in residence – for an intimate chamber concert.

In 2018, still only 19 and fresh from a royal wedding at Windsor, he played Elgar’s elegiac piece with full orchestra.

This resonant and deeply emotional rendering of Dvorak’s work sits between the two – appearing alongside a socially-distanced chamber sized Phil and performing a score with reduced instrumentation specially commissioned from George Morton.

As Kanneh-Mason said himself in a voiceover before the start of the piece, Dvorak’s work already has “wonderful chamber music elements”, particularly with the woodwind, which is underscored in this pared back version.

Pared back by numbers, but certainly not in musical richness – as the Phil has proved throughout its reduced size concerts, a half-size symphony orchestra (37 on stage here) doesn’t necessarily mean half the sound.

That richness formed a lustrous background for Kanneh-Mason’s spirited attack in the opening allegro, his cello taking up the lyrical main theme with compelling intensity.

When I reviewed the Elgar concerto three years ago, I was impressed with his technique but felt there was more to explore in the tone he coaxed from his 400-year-old Amati cello.

That depth of tone, maturing all the time and wonderfully wrought here through all three movements, now complements Kanneh-Mason’s technical excellence.

It was a performance shimmering with purpose; after the opening movement came a boldly lyrical adagio with its lament for Dvorak’s lost love through her favourite song Leave Me Alone, and a playful final allegro – playfulness replicated in energetic playing from the Phil (with conductor Rory Macdonald literally bouncing on the box) which practically leapt off the screen.

The concerto was paired with Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, written for his wife Cosima and played by 13 musicians whom he hired to come to their house to premier it in the hall (I can’t imagine too much social distancing there).

It was a delicate, intimate piece of music making with plenty of starring moments for woodwind – oboist Jonathan Small and Helen Wilson on flute among them - and French horn, and with Macdonald shaping a series of burnished crescendos on the way to a radiant sunrise motif of three rising notes.

The concert is available for a month so there's still plenty of time to catch it online.


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