Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason on the music that shaped him
The brilliant cellist guides us through the classical music that has guided and defined his career so far
Born in 1999, Sheku Kanneh-Mason is the foremost cellist of his generation. After winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016, in 2018 Sheku played at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and in 2020 he was awarded an MBE for services to music.
As well as solo albums for Decca, Sheku has made recordings with his talented siblings. Indeed, the extraordinary story of the Kanneh-Mason family has been told in several TV documentaries. Sheku’s solo album, Song, came out in September 2022 . That same month, Sheku was to perform at the Last Night of the Proms. However, the event was cancelled following the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Here, Sheku discusses the music that has shaped his life and career.
'I started playing the cello at six and Elgar's Cello Concerto was the first piece of classical music that I fell in love with and felt I understood. Of course, my feelings towards the piece have changed as I’ve got older – performing and recording it has taken my relationship with the work to another level of connection. It’s shaped who I am as a musician.
'I listened to the Jacqueline du Pré recording constantly and when I was younger I suppose I tried to copy it, but her way of playing and her interpretation are so individual that I learnt more from her approach to the music than from specific things she does with the piece.
'We grew up listening to recordings of the Elgar Cello Concerto, Beethoven Violin Concerto with Itzhak Perlman, and Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto with Vladimir Ashkenazy. My brother Braimah plays the violin, my sister Isata plays the piano, and I play the cello so I’m sure it’s no coincidence – that this was the music we were exposed to!
'Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet is another piece from my childhood, which I remember hearing particularly on car journeys. My mum signed us up to a week-long swimming course one half term, and the journey was about half an hour, exactly the length of the ‘Trout’. We listened to it twice a day for a week and I really got to know it. It’s such a joyful piece. We wanted Jeneba, our fifth sibling, to learn the double bass purely so we could play this piece, but my mum said, ‘No, it’s too big.’ Jeneba now plays the piano!
'I had a chance to work intensively on Dvorak's String Quartet No. 13 in G major when I was about 15 or 16, on an Easter chamber music course run by MusicWorks. It’s full of character, variety, range, with some incredibly dark moments and some incredibly joyful ones. It’s quite extreme. I’ve only played it that once because I don’t have a quartet that I play regularly with.
'I played Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 for the BBC Young Musician competition in 2016, so you could say it changed my life, but I know Shostakovich more through his symphonies and his string quartets. The scale of his symphonies has such an impact on me, particularly No. 11. You have to give it your full attention, to experience it with your whole being. It can be exhausting to listen to, but incredibly moving.
'My experience of symphonies is mostly from listening because I haven’t played much in orchestras. I played in the cello section of Chineke! when I was 16 or 17. It was my first professional concert and we performed Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – I learnt so much from being with this excellent orchestra. In 2017 I was the soloist in their BBC Proms concert, playing Dvořák’s Rondo in G minor.
'The London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and Simon Rattle are an amazing team – we recorded the Elgar Concerto together in 2020 and I recently played my first live concert with them in Trafalgar Square.
'Mozart's Requiem has always been my mum’s favourite piece and even as a small child I loved it too. I could tell that it was full of tragedy, but some bits are so beautiful and touching, it’s just a masterpiece. My new album, Song, contains music that is personal to me and obviously my family has been a strong influence – the folk tune, ‘Myfanwy’ – which I’ve arranged for three cellos, is my Welsh grandmother’s favourite song. It’s nice to be able to put together an album of all the music I’ve been listening to and thinking of for many years.'
Sheku Kanneh-Mason's choices
Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85
Jacqueline du Pré (cello), London Symphony Orchestra/Barbirolli
Warner Classics 5555272
Schubert Piano Quintet in A major, D667, ‘The Trout’
DVD with Daniel Barenboim (piano), Itzhak Perlman (violin), Pinchas Zukerman (violin), Jacqueline Du Pré (cello), Zubin Mehta (double bass), Andreas Schmidt (piano), Vladimir Ashkenazy (piano)
Christopher Nupen Films A13CND
Dvořák String Quartet No. 13 in G major, Op. 106
Pavel Haas Quartet
Shostakovich Symphony No. 11 in G minor, Op. 103
Mozart Requiem in D minor, K626
Netherlands Radio Choir & Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Jansons
RCO Live RCO14002