Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason are two prodigiously talented siblings from an unparalleled family of musicians. In addition to enjoying endless critical acclaim, these exemplary young artists have become massively popular among an unusually large swath of audiences, speaking volumes not only of their obvious technical abilities, but also their great musicality. Following a memorable Boston debut performance in 2019, the pair now returns to our city with even greater demand. Join us to see two British sensations well on their way to becoming household names, as we close out our 2021/22 concert season on a high note with an evening of timeless cello and piano sonatas.
This performance also has a streaming option May 7-May 9.
For Beethoven, the middle years of the 1810s were eventful yet bittersweet. December 1813 saw the successful premiere of both his Seventh Symphony (audiences demanded an encore of the second movement) and Wellington’s Victory, a bombastic piece written to commemorate the Duke of Wellington’s triumph over Napoleon. The year that followed proved to be the high-water mark of Beethoven’s fame and popular acclaim in his adopted city of Vienna, yet depression and doubt lingered in his mind. He continued to voice worries about money to publishers and friends despite the windfall from Wellington’s Victory and other popular works.
Most alarmingly, by this time Beethoven had grown almost entirely deaf. He relied on written notes passed back and forth to communicate with friends and visitors, and his playing grew increasingly erratic. In April 1814 he gave his last public appearance as a featured pianist in two performances of his “Archduke” Trio. After attending a rehearsal of the piece, violinist Louis Spohr wrote, “there was scarcely anything left of the virtuosity of the artist which had formerly been so greatly admired.” As a result of his deafness, Beethoven turned inward. His output in these years was exceptionally lean, yielding only a few significant works including the two sonatas of Opus 102. Some scholars view this fallow period as transitional, one calling it Beethoven’s “evolution toward the transcendental.”
The first movement of this sonata opens with a slow introduction. The cello melody is sweet and song-like, gradually becoming more animated while never venturing far from its home key. Note the dense textures and fascination with trills in the piano part, both hallmarks of Beethoven’s late style. In the second section, a rollicking Allegro vivace, the harmonies turn ambivalent and roaming. Beethoven provides a wealth of textural juxtapositions between the instruments; dense, galloping chords stand in stark contrast to the thin counterpoint of a single piano line above the cello. The movement concludes with an abrupt, emphatic cadence.
The slow introduction of the second movement echoes the first. Here the music feels improvisatory yet becomes pensive, with the cello brooding in its lowest range. A brief and tender transitional section follows. The finale begins with an upward four-note figure in the piano. This exuberant section sounds like sunshine, interrupted twice by abrupt pauses and droning cello before an effervescent conclusion.
© Andrew McIntyre, 2022
Shostakovich spent his twenties establishing himself as one of the USSR’s most promising young composers. Following the successful premiere of his First Symphony, a work he had written as a teenager at the Petrograd Conservatory, he dedicated much of his creative energy to composing film scores, incidental music, and larger works for the stage. Among these were his first opera, the satirical The Nose, and his second, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Lady Macbeth had premiered to resounding success in January 1934, securing Shostakovich’s place (at least temporarily) at the forefront of Soviet opera. Yet these professional triumphs occurred alongside an intense crisis in his personal life.
In 1934 he initiated an affair that nearly ended his marriage to his wife Nina. That summer, he fell in love with a young translator named Yelena Konstantinovskaya (coincidentally, Konstantinovskaya was denounced and arrested the following year). Shostakovich composed the Sonata over a two-week period in August of that year, during which time he and Nina were temporarily separated (according to her, the two were briefly legally divorced). They eventually reconciled, and the birth of their daughter Galina cemented the relationship until Nina’s death in the early 1950s.
The sonata opens with a lyrical main subject. Much of the music in this movement is lush, insistent, and youthful, like a young man in his prime. It stands in sharp contrast to the eerie and anemic writing found in some of Shostakovich’s later chamber works, which he composed amidst a painful and protracted decline in his health. A pizzicato passage initiates the development. In this section, the music grows more agitated with increasingly dense writing for the cello. The gloomy coda appears suddenly, almost as if included as an afterthought. The piano begins this section with a soft but insistent accompaniment in octaves; the cello is muted throughout.
No longer muted, the cello unleashes a maelstrom in the second movement. Alongside a hammering piano accompaniment, the cellist employs a variety of techniques to create a vivid palette of tone colors. Shostakovich first conceived this movement as a minuet, but his conception of the piece evolved in the decades following its completion. He later increased the tempo, transforming the movement into an energetic scherzo.
The cello is front and center in the third movement, a mournful monologue. The piano accompaniment is mostly sparse, with a pervasive three-note rhythm providing a sense of forward motion. The sonata closes with a short and somewhat unsettling rondo.
© Andrew McIntyre, 2022
English composer Frank Bridge’s legacy remains overshadowed by his most famous composition student: Benjamin Britten. Britten was introduced to Bridge’s music at the age of ten when he attended a performance of Bridge conducting his symphonic tone poem The Sea. An adult Britten recounted being “knocked sideways” by the performance. Britten and Bridge met the following year and Bridge, impressed with the precocious pre-teen, agreed to teach him. The two became quite close; a photo from 1930 shows Bridge and a teenage Britten posing after a game of tennis, rackets in hand.
Bridge began composing the Cello Sonata in 1913—the year of Britten’s birth—in the pre-war halcyon days known as the Edwardian Era. It is tempting to credit this idyllic time with the first movement’s warm disposition, indicated throughout the score with the markings dolce and espressivo. The cello part is straightforward, intoning a rich, lyrical melody with few instances of pizzicato and multiple stopping. Benjamin Britten once referred to his teacher’s “impatience with tonality,” a sentiment epitomized in the Cello Sonata. Bridge frequently shifts the tonal center to create an aura of wistfulness.
The second movement begins with piano music that is dissonant and emphatic yet also sweet. Thanks to heavy use of the pedal, harmonies blur together in a kaleidoscopic soundscape. A yearning melody in the cello’s upper register adds tender romance. The first section concludes with muted cello before transitioning into the second section, an agitated molto allegro. Here too does Bridge display his “impatience with tonality” as fragments of melody drift about on restless harmonies. Muted and tranquil, the cello transitions into a lengthy coda. This closing section comprises a return of the music from the beginning of the first movement before a decisive final cadence.
Bridge composed the stormier second movement in the final years of World War I. According to pianist Ada May Thomas, a contemporary of Bridge’s, “he was in utter despair over the futility of war and the state of the world generally and would walk round Kensington in the early hours of the morning unable to get any rest or sleep.” Yet the juxtaposition of beauty and strife points to another facet of Bridge’s outlook on the war. In the score of another of his wartime works he quoted the words of nineteenth-century British naturalist Richard Jefferies: “How beautiful a delight to make the world joyous! The song should never be silent, the dancer never still, the laugh should sound like water that runs forever.”
© Andrew McIntyre, 2022
Britten had long been a fervent admirer of Shostakovich when the composers met in 1960. Shostakovich was attending the Western premiere of his Cello Concerto and invited Britten to sit in his box with him. Performing the concerto was preeminent Soviet cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, a former composition student of Shostakovich’s. Rostropovich’s playing clearly made a strong impression on Britten, for after the concert Shostakovich told his former pupil, “Slava, do you know I am aching from so many bruises along my side… at the concert tonight, every time Britten admired something in your playing, he would poke me in the ribs, and say, ‘Isn't that simply marvelous!’ As he liked so many things throughout the concerto, I am now suffering!” Shostakovich introduced the two men and Britten immediately made plans to write a new piece for the cellist.
Four months later the Cello Sonata was complete and the two men sat down to rehearse it. Fueled by a combination of broken German and several whiskeys, Britten and Rostropovich made it through the rehearsal. (“We played like pigs,” Rostropovich recalled, “but we were so happy.”) The sonata instigated a lasting friendship between the two men, who remained close until Britten’s death. They premiered the sonata at Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival and two years later, Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, visited the USSR for the work’s Soviet premiere. The Cello Sonata would be the first of five major works Britten composed for Rostropovich (the cellist referred to them as his “lifebelts”).
“Dialogo,” the uptempo first movement, opens with soft-spoken, halting figures in the cello. As the title suggests, cello and piano are equal partners in this conversational music. Following a repeat of the first section, the music slowly grows more animated, with contrasts of dynamic and pitch heightening the sense of tension. In the last bars, the cello intones the first eight notes of the harmonic series as the piano plays in its highest and lowest ranges.
In the second movement, the cello strings are entirely plucked rather than bowed, evoking the sounds of Balinese gamelan percussion. The piano’s staccato responses create a playful repartee. The middle movement, “Elegia,” opens with a dirge. Dissonant harmonies, slow tempo, and uneven phrases in the piano create a sense of deep unease. An animated middle section includes plaintive melodies for the cello, but the music eventually collapses in lethargic descending figures. The movement closes with both instruments playing in hushed tones.
The fourth movement is an aggressive, off-kilter march. Despite its brevity, the movement contains an array of dazzling technical effects for the cello. One scholar writes that Britten found in Rostropovich “a musical partner upon whose technique and musical sympathy he could rely absolutely,” a claim reflected in this demanding music. The final movement, a skittish moto perpetuo, bristles with nervous energy.
© Andrew McIntyre, 2022
“The world’s new favourite cellist.”THE TIMES
“She is a pianist who makes lines sing beautifully and virtuosic passages dance, finding intimacy and eloquence at telling moments…”BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE