Review: A Cellist Accompanied by His Sister. Or Vice Versa?

If someone asked you what kind of concert you went to at Zankel Hall on Wednesday evening, you’d probably call it a cello recital. That’s the shorthand for performances by prominent young string soloists; the usual thought is they are the main event. We would traditionally say that they were simply “accompanied” by a pianist.

But on Wednesday that pianist was Isata Kanneh-Mason. She played beautifully: her touch patrician in a Beethoven sonata; dreamy in one by Shostakovich; suave in one by Frank Bridge; and alert without being anxious in one by Britten. Calmly commanding throughout, she was also unfailingly subtle. You could even say she was accompanied by her younger brother, the cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason.

I’m joking, of course, but that the Kanneh-Masons are siblings makes it easier to see them as equal partners, and to see the lie in the common notion that the keyboardist is the bit player in someone else’s show. The sonata repertoire is often difficult enough on the piano that the accompanist label seems inadequate. This truly felt like a concert of duets.

Both of these musicians have been rising in recent years: first Sheku, 23, following his internationally televised appearance at the royal wedding in 2018; and more recently Isata, 25, with a pair of excellent, quietly innovative albums. They appeared together in 2019 at Carnegie Hall’s smallest space, and returned on Wednesday to Zankel, the middle-size hall, whose 600 seats were sold out. (Is the biggest, Stern Auditorium, to come?)

The program was nicely constructed. Bridge was Britten’s teacher; and Britten and Shostakovich are linked, as the Kanneh-Masons said in a recent interview with The New York Times, through the advocacy of the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Rostropovich also played Karen Khachaturian’s lively sonata, which the Kanneh-Masons are doing at some stops on their present tour. I wish they had presented it at Zankel instead of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 4 in C, an intrusion — however pleasant — from the early 19th century in what otherwise would have been four pieces written over just 50 years in the 20th. As an opening here, it was restrained to the point of weightlessness.

In some ways, the first half of the concert felt like a preparation for the second, with the Shostakovich, after the Beethoven, also floating by with lots of smoothly threadlike, wispy cello playing — though in the Largo, Sheku’s even keel paid off in some arresting harshness, and Isata was icily lucid in the second movement.

After intermission, in the rarely performed, richly wistful Bridge sonata, these musicians didn’t lose their restraint but gained tension as more extravagant emotion kept spilling past the reserve. The second movement climaxed in the piano’s softly conclusive, consoling line, setting off a spiral of light calligraphy in the cello — a passage of superbly unified playing.

And Britten’s sonata was a match for the Kanneh-Masons’ self-possession, in the gnomic interplay of the first movement — nearly silent undulating in the cello as the pianist seems to wander, searching for him — and the caroming yet controlled pizzicato of the second. A sense of togetherness, of shared sensibility, permeated the whole piece, as it did the whole concert, down to the understated yet feeling encore, their arrangement, inspired by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s, of the spiritual “Deep River.”

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason

Performed on Wednesday at Zankel Hall, Manhattan.

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