Isata Kanneh-Mason, piano  (in Boston, MA)

NEC's Jordan Hall

British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason’s star has rapidly risen as she continues to astound and inspire audiences of all backgrounds—aficionados and newcomers alike—with her dazzling interpretations of standard and overlooked repertoire.   

She returns to the Series for the third time—making her solo recital debut—as she takes center stage for two special concerts: she inaugurates Celebrity Series’ partnership with Groton Hill Music Center and launches the Boston season at Jordan Hall.  

Don’t miss an unforgettable appearance by “a profound and greatly gifted artist who radiates warmth, joy, and much-needed musical sunshine” (Gramophone).  

The program will include Fanny Mendelssohn’s sweeping Easter Sonata, long attributed to her brother Felix and only performed under the correct authorship since 2017. Mendelssohn was just 23 when she penned the work, and—in the capable hands of another young woman from a prodigious musical family—we can’t wait to hear it!  

Haydn’s late sonata in C Major (one of the “London” sonatas) sets a playful, energetic tone, while Schumann’s evocative Kinderszenen closes the program with a wistful look back on youthful impressions.

This performance will also take place in Groton Hill on October 13 at 8:00 PM.


When Franz Joseph Haydn wrote his Keyboard Sonata No 60 in C Major in 1794, he was already in his sixties and was perhaps the preeminent figure in European music. Having already revolutionized almost every genre of composition, Haydn could have remained a polite figure and rested on his success. His exploration in musical form and orchestration in the last 20 years of his life, however, reveal a restless intellectual always reaching for more intriguing modes of composition.

The beginning theme of the sonata is the basis of the entire first movement. It is intended to be off-kilter—after three notes on the beat, the remainder of the statement is offset, syncopated. This sets the tone for the movement as rhythmically unresolved. Phrases are uneven throughout, almost systematically so—every time a phrase feels that it will extend to a conventional length and reach a stop, the mood changes, the articulation shifts. Often, phrases are interrupted in what feels like the middle of an ending. Because of this, time feels unstructured. The standard treatment of dividing phrases into four neat countable sections is not apparent here to the listener. Even as the movement ends, the final three brusque chords on the beat remind the listener of the start of the piece, indicating that, like a barber shop pole, the music might keep going. Instead, it stops in a lurch.

The second movement is intended to be contrasting in nearly every way. Apart from its slow pace, its main theme rises instead of falling and its interest mainly rests in its melodic embellishment in the right hand. Some phrases passed between left and right hand are reminiscent of the first movement, but the movement altogether engenders a more contemplative, less fractured approach to its form. A common element from the first movement that continues here and into the third is sparseness: one of Haydn’s major gifts as a composer was to create varied and complex compositions from very few elements.

The brief third movement is essentially a recap of the first, with the second phrase of its theme, a statement of four chords on the beat, recalling the first movement theme. Again, Haydn plays with expectations. Phrase lengths are varied and the pace occasionally slows to a halt before suddenly picking up the lively triple meter again. Haydn doesn’t belabor the point: the piece ends having made its summary statement, playing a bit more with the audience’s expectations and tying a neat bow on this part of the evening. 

Fanny Mendelssohn’s legacy, for better or worse, has often been tied up with that of her famous and highly regarded brother Felix. That her music is often conflated with and compared to his is both unfair and a testament to her monumental talent as a musician. Considering her compositions in the wider context they deserve, they consistently match or surpass the best music written in the period in ability and imagination. Mendelssohn’s Easter Sonata, originally misattributed to her brother upon its rediscovery in the 1970s, was finally correctly identified as her composition in 2010 and is a milestone in her career. It is a clear signal that here is one of the great talents of 19th-century music. 
The piece is a model of the kind of composition a talented composer in her early 20s writes: an ambitious statement of what she has learned, an electric and eclectic showcase of her knowledge and technique. The first movement is emblematic of this, using a simple three-note descending figure as the main thematic material for a remarkably varied sequence of music. The textural variety is notable and impressive. Mendelssohn’s understanding of the range of colors a piano can produce is evident in constant shifts between bright and dark passages. The very recently deceased Beethoven, his late work for piano especially, is a clear inspiration for this movement, showing how in touch Mendelssohn was with current trends in avant garde music. 
If the first movement showcases Beethoven, the second movement does the same with J.S. Bach. It is a prelude and fugue clearly patterned on Bach’s work in that form. It begins hymn-like before transitioning to the fugue, where one melody is introduced before other imitations of that melody join in a complex web. Mendelssohn’s treatment of the fugue, modeling Bach’s most adventurous work, is dense from start to finish, never resting in its shifts in harmony and texture.  
The third movement, a lively scherzo reminiscent of both her and her brother’s work in the form, presents a contrast to the heavier second movement and a push toward the finale. It consistently compels itself forward, feeling as if it is always moving upward. In the end, though, the music simply dissolves until a playful trickle of notes concludes the movement. 
The finale begins tempestuously and remains blustery for most of the movement. Its boldness and energy are especially apparent in the rumbling rapid fire bass lines and broad chords. The first and second movement themes have returned, transformed to match the energy. Suddenly, though, and rather unusually for a finale, the bass line dampens, the music slows, and the piece gives way to a simple reading of a chorale, the hymn “Christ, thou Lamb of God.” It is the first and only time the piece’s seasonal name is overtly referenced, as if Mendelssohn is reminding herself of what she feels is truly important. It is both whimsical and humbling, a quiet and patient ending to an otherwise dense piece of music.

Robert Schumann was a paradox of a composer. In his life and art, he seemed to balance on a thread between contradictions. He was a great supporter of the community of composers around him, of young talent and of those who supported his fiercely defended critical ideals, yet he was in life mostly a loner who invented an imaginary society of composers in lieu of any real group of friends. He had major mood swings, perhaps from what we would call bipolar disorder today, and oscillated between periods of fanatic productivity and melancholic introspection. He was also a defender of classical ideals and forms whose music seemed more interested in exploring the very modern precept that content dictates form. It would be easy to choose just one of these perspectives to analyze Schumann from, but this would be an incomplete portrait. He was all these things, a deeply complex person who tried to lead the life of a quintessential Romantic: passionate, imaginative, and obsessively art-forward. 

Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes from childhood) are emblematic of these contradictions. They are mature, serious pieces, but they were written with childhood in mind, a response to his future wife Clara Wieck’s opinion that he could sometimes act like a child. Clara was one of the great piano virtuosos in Europe, and when he wrote to her about the pieces, he noted another paradox—she should forget she is a virtuoso when performing them. 

Schumann’s aside presents a challenge to modern performers. The technical simplicity of these pieces means interpretation must be emphasized. With spare textures and clear melodies, sensitivity of touch is paramount. While some movements like No. 1, Von fremden Ländern und Menschen (Of foreign lands and peoples), and No. 7, Träumerei (Dreaming), require absolute delicacy, others, like No. 8, Ritter vom Steckenpferd (Knight of the hobbyhorse), are bombastic, requiring a freer approach. And although the pieces are eclectic, there is an indescribable unity in the collection, as if Schumann is presenting a theme and variations. Regardless of why this is, what remains clear throughout is that these pared down miniatures gently compel serious, concerted attention from both audience and performer. 

Although Frédéric Chopin was one of the great virtuosos of 19th-century Europe, his ambitions seem to have been less pronounced than those of his contemporaries like Franz Liszt, who often wrote expansively for large orchestras. Chopin, rather, was almost exclusively interested in writing for the piano, and many of his pieces used short, single-movement forms. Taken as a whole, his work looks like an extended argument for the virtues of the dominant philosophy of 19th-century middle class Europe: liberalism. The individual, in this case the pianist, is paramount. Even his Sonata No. 3 in B minor, one of his more expansive works, was dedicated to a single person, the Countess Élise de Perthuis. 
From this perspective, the Third Sonata is, in Chopin’s body of work, akin to the grand orchestral pieces that many of his contemporaries were writing. It is one of his comparatively few attempts at one of those strict large-scale forms so popular in and around Germany, where many of the greatest composers were working. The piece begins as if mimicking the style of those German composers: austere, authoritative, and confrontational. As the first theme develops, though, the music fades and becomes more slippery to yield a gentler second theme more closely aligned with Chopin’s salon music. It is here that the piece becomes a kind of demonstration in favor of this subtle music—intimacy and quietness can be serious, too. Unusually for the first movement of a sonata, when the original theme is brought back again after development, it is the subtler second theme that is restated rather than the first. 
The second movement, Scherzo, is another typical Chopinesque statement. Removed from this context, it could easily be mistaken for one of his Preludes or, slowed down, one of his Ballades. It is a rapid display of subtle technique and dexterity that envelops the listener in a John Coltrane-like sheet of sound. 
The third movement, Largo, is one of Chopin’s purest showcases of his ability as a melodist. Briefly modeling the first movement, it begins confrontationally with a red herring of an ominous theme. Soon, softness breaks through and presents the listener with some of Chopin’s more adventurous harmonic writing. Only a short time later will the listener realize that this was an extended introduction for a longer middle section in a new key. Like a Bach fugue or one of the composer’s own nocturnes, its steady rhythmic churn belies a more wiry evolution, contorting itself constantly through several harmonic shifts. It rests finally in a recap of the first theme that itself continues to evolve before its quiet, demonstrable end. 
The final movement, Presto, begins with a shocking series of octaves, perhaps the most difficult passage of the entire piece. Chopin is unrelenting from there, marrying broad chords and octave voicings with dextrous passages that recall the earlier Scherzo. The endless barrage of virtuosity is tempered and unified with a strong melody that threads throughout the movement. It is a summary not just of everything that has come before it in the piece, but of Chopin’s aspirations as a composer—virtuosity, but beautiful. 

“Calmly commanding throughout, she was also unfailingly subtle. ”

The New York Times

Jordan Hall Venue Information

An Aaron Richmond Recital
Endowed by Nancy Richmond Winsten and the late Dr. Joseph Winsten

This performance is made possible in part by support from Celebrity Series' LIVE PERFORMANCE! Arts for All Endowment Funds, with generous leadership support from Dorothy & Stephen Weber and Lawrence T.P. Stifler & Mary McFadden.

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