Sheku and Isata, the charismatic siblings from the talented Kanneh-Mason family, have released their first duo album, Muse – a selection of music for piano and cello composed by Samuel Barber and Sergei Rachmaninov. The recording captures the siblings’ musicality and refined skill from years of performing together at home and in recitals worldwide.
Both the Rachmaninov and Barber cello sonatas found a natural place in Sheku and Isata’s concert programmes before the pandemic. During the COVID−19 lockdowns, they found shared enthusiasm along with a familiar comfort in playing the pieces together. Considering this, they asked themselves an important question: can a live concert be replicated, offstage? The siblings aspired to share the process of exploration and discovery behind each piece and to demonstrate where they stood in their realisation of them. Capturing this energy for the recording of Muse, when all concerts were paused worldwide, the album offers a snapshot of their musical collaboration during an unexpected time together. Sheku and Isata embrace a musical relationship that holds no rivalry; its security encourages risks with their interpretation of the composers’ broad works and the result is thrilling.
Barber’s Cello Sonata from the 1930’s is an early work and not one that is hugely well known. The duo revelled in the discovery of its intricacies and quickly became fond of the Barber pieces throughout the process. Sheku and Isata carefully describe these as shamelessly dramatic, with a sense of innocent impatience. A short sonata that boasts youthful extremity, it clearly resonated perfectly for the pair. In juxtaposition to the Rachmaninov, the intentional drama is not shy, and neither is their fine execution of this powerful sonata.
Rachmaninov’smuch-loved sonata is described by the composer as giving equal footing to the piano and cello. The result is a multi-dimensional work of art that is considered a joy to play for both instruments. Although Rachmaninov infrequently strayed into chamber music, the selection of pieces on this recording finds Sheku imitating a great, rich Russian voice on his instrument. In this way, an array of textures is brought out in Rachmaninov’s work that would not be traditionally assumed.
Sheku and Isata chose to perform the Rachmaninov sonata as part of their Carnegie Hall debut in 2019. The New York Times commented on their partnership: “Mr. Kanneh-Mason is a gifted, sensitive artist. And in the demanding works this duo performed — especially Rachmaninov’s rhapsodic and teeming Sonata in G Minor, which has a virtuosic piano part — Ms. Kanneh-Mason was a superb collaborator.”
The siblings also returned to this beloved work for their first live performance in the UK following the lockdowns, with Sheku telling the audience it one of his favourite pieces of all time. In its 5* review, the Financial Times concluded: “Together they make a big, thrilling, emotional sound: judging by the audience — as diverse and multi-aged as any I’ve seen — these musicians are also making a powerful impact way beyond the world of classical music.”