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All Classical Portland reviews Sheku Kanneh-Mason's 'Song'

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Song, the new album from cellist Sheku-Kanneh Mason, features music from across the entire spectrum of classical, folk, jazz and pop – all personally curated by Sheku. The eclectic mix of styles are tied together by one thing – the unique singing voice of Sheku’s cello.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason became a household name in 2018 after performing at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex at Windsor Castle. His performance was greeted with universal excitement and was seen by nearly two billion people globally. 

Sheku initially garnered renown as the winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician Competition, the first black musician to take the title. He has released two chart-topping albums on the Decca Classics label, Inspiration (2018) and Elgar (2020). The latter reached #8 in the overall UK official album chart, making Sheku the first cellist in history to reach the UK top 10.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason has included some of his own arrangements including of Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ (written by Burt Bacharach) for solo pizzicato cello, Bach arrangements for multiple cellos, and the folk tune ‘Myfanwy’, his Welsh grandmother’s favourite song. Sheku said, “This is one of my absolute favourite melodies, and one that I’ve known for as long as I can remember. I spent a lot of my childhood in Wales with my family and particularly my Welsh Grandma, so this is for her.”

As well as performing solo Sheku is also joined by family and friends for many of the pieces on his new album Song. He improvises with jazz pianist Harry Baker on ‘Cry Me A River’, collaborates with singer-songwriter Zak Abel on their original song, ‘Same Boat’ and joins the South African soprano Pumeza Matshikiza on Massenet’s ‘Élégie’.

The album also includes the world premiere on a new work (commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music, where Sheku studied) from British composer, Edmund Finnis, who wrote the ‘Five Preludes’ especially for Sheku, and a movement from Messiaen’s moving ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

“I wanted to show who I am as a musician right now,” said Sheku Kanneh-Mason. “In doing so, I was able to showcase different styles and approaches to music.”

All Classical Portland Program Director John Pitman shares his latest review of “Song,” and chats with Sheku-Kanneh Mason. The album is available now on Decca Records.

Back in January 2022, (which simultaneously feels like yesterday and a decade ago) I interviewed both Sheku and his sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, about their debut album, “Muse.” In that interview, the siblings talk about the joys and challenges of working together while forging individual artistic paths.

Now, just 9 months later, Sheku has released “Song,” which he considers his most personal album yet. And he’s not alone. There are some beautiful tracks on the album that illustrate the “singing” tone of his instrument and playing style. He also brings in friends from the classical, jazz, and pop worlds to perform both new arrangements of older music and new compositions by Sheku himself. You will get a better sense of what Sheku was striving for – and accomplished – in my conversation with him. His enthusiasm, cheerfulness and humor come across, as does his absolute seriousness when it comes to making music.