A Young Cellist’s Tribute to the Past and Present

On WCRB’s CD of the Week, 19-year-old Sheku Kanneh-Mason looks back to his greatest musical inspirations growing up, from teachers to legendary cellists.

Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason is 19 years old, and he's grown up with the loving support of a big family in Nottingham, England. When he plays, he unleashes a beautiful, unburdened sound that courageously follows the composer’s story, with an astonishing amount of depth and insight.

In 2016, Sheku Kanneh-Mason won the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition. That moment is captured on the video below, along with a portrait of the unbelievably musical, fun-loving and intelligent atmosphere that he and his six talented siblings have grown up in. Proud to be the first black musician to win the BBC award, he finds himself now recording far sooner than he’d imagined – and for a major label, DECCA, no less. It’s not hard to feel a pang of worry about a musician so young getting caught up in the invasive tentacles of the industry. But Sheku seems to have left enough crumbs along the path that he’ll always know his route back to the simple truth of his love for music.

Even though Sheku isn't yet 20, he still manages to look backwards, in tribute to his teachers, as well as three great cellists of the last century. He includes two pieces by Pablo Casals on his debut CD, including the haunting Song of the Birds. His lovely and understated performance of Saint-Saëns’s The Swan was the first "proper" cello piece he ever worked on, after listening with love to Jacqueline du Pré's recording. Mstislav Rostropovich's spirit is here in the centerpiece of the disc, the Shostakovich Cello Concerto, where Sheku aims to emulate the power and sustained lines that Rostropovich was famous for.

While he pays homage to those older, signature styles, Sheku also brings his own 21st-century experience to the disc with music he hopes will capture the attention of his own peers who may know nothing at all about classical music, but will get caught up in its beauty and appeal. He's made his own arrangement of Bob Marley's “No Woman, No Cry.” (He remembers his parents listening to Marley in the car, and now he calls him a "main influence.") The last track features his own arrangement of “Halleluja,” Leonard Cohen's 1984 song which has become an anthem for young people around the globe – loved for the heartbreak it delivers with its simultaneous joyousness and despair. Sheku does it with three of his friends from the Royal Academy of Music, giving it a touching brand of intimacy without a drop of indulgence.

The entire CD unfolds from the moving Hebrew song "Evening of Roses." The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra plays with style and warmth under another inspiration of our time, conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla. The album as a whole is beautifully conceived, and played with color and sincerity; it’s fantastic that so much of it is taken from live performances.

Watch a trailer for the album:

For more information, a track listing, and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.