Isata Kanneh-Mason: Summertime

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I concluded my review of Romance, young British pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason’s debut recording for Decca a couple of years ago, writing:

“As a recording debut, this release is impressive indeed; after so thrilling an introduction, I can’t wait to hear what Kanneh-Mason does next.”

Well that wait is now over, and Kanneh-Mason’s second CD is with us. Summertime is a joyous celebration of vibrant 20th century solo piano compositions that draw from the deep well of the American repertoire.

With the sort of programming one might associate with Lara Downes, the new album includes compositions by Gershwin, Copland, Barber, Beach, and the world premiere recording of Coleridge-Taylor’s Impromptu No.2, a poignantly evocative piece that I hope will belatedly find its place in the wider repertoire…

Virtuosic and spiritual music

Kanneh-Mason tells us in the CD booklet:

“I wanted to explore one overarching theme, and the variety of contrast you can discover within that. I really enjoy playing American music, and that’s how the project started.”

Recorded in Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool in November 2020 and March 2021, Summertime is an album that celebrates classic US masterpieces for solo piano and arrangements of African-American spirituals handed down the generations.

The programme comprises:

George Gershwin / Earl Wild:
• Summertime (No.2 from Grand Fantasy on Porgy and Bess)
• I Got Rhythm (No.6 from Seven Virtuoso Etudes

Samuel Barber
• Nocturne (Hommage to John Field) Op.33
• Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.26

George Gershwin
• The Man I Love (arr. Percy Grainger)
• Three Preludes

Amy Beach
• By the Still Waters Op.114

Aaron Copland
• The Cat and the Mouse (Scherzo Humoristique)

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
• Impromptu No.2 in B minor
• Deep River
• The Bamboula
• Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

photography: Robin Clewley

The contrast with her refined debut recording, which focused on the music of Clara Schumann, couldn’t be greater; wonderful though that recording is, with this new collection of dazzling pianistic diamonds Kanneh-Mason seems to come into her own, her musicality and gift for colour given the freedom to shine.

The Colours of Summertime

Opening this recital disc, the two Gershwin arrangements by Earl Wild immediately reveal Kanneh-Mason in her element, taking the flamboyant passagework seemingly in her stride without allowing the music to be overwhelmed by it, or indeed seem at all fraught.

Summertime is suitably hazy while I Got Rhythm is boundless in its conveyance of goodnatured musical fun.

Samuel Barber’s meditative Nocturne is a wonderful miniature, combining the filigree of Field’s writing with a wilful disregard for tonality, yet never losing its Romantic heart. Here Kanneh-Mason may lack the intensity of Daniil Trifonov (who recently recorded the piece for his Chopin Evocations disc), but personally I find the warmth, wistfulness and poise of her interpretation more beguiling.

Positioned early in the programme yet its darkest heart, Samuel Barber’s Piano Sonata in E flat minor was composed in 1949 and given its premiere by Horowitz. Its 20-odd minute duration comprises four movements: the tumultuous Allegro energico, waspish Scherzo Allegro vivace e leggero, sombre Adagio mesto and agitated final Fuga: Allegro con spirito, written in four voices.

Kanneh-Mason enthuses,

“Dramatic, that’s how I would describe the Sonata. He presents drama in an unashamed fashion, and doesn’t shy away from it.”

Returning to the more accessible music of Gershwin, The Man I Love is delivered with what seems a masterclass in tonal control, while there is plenty of fizz in her playing of the beloved Three Preludes, even if she follows modern convention with her rather lugubrious take on the slower second Prelude, in contrast with the swing of Gershwin’s own recording.

From Still to Deep Waters…

The contemplative By the Still Waters further underlines the sense I have that Amy Beach’s music (some of which I recently reviewed here) has been very seriously underrated thus far. This is a truly sublime piece, played here by Kanneh-Mason with sincerity and beauty.

Copland’s The Cat and the Mouse is a favourite of advanced students in the US, but too little-known here in the UK. A deliciously cartoonish scherzo, Kanneh-Mason scampers around the keyboard with relish.

Hinson and Roberts’ classic 1,170-page tome, Guide to the Pianist’s Repertoire affords the English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor a scant entry of less than half a page. The four pieces which conclude Kanneh-Mason’s recital underline just how brilliant a composer he was, however, and it seems to me rather tragic that his genius and extensive output is not more widely recognised.

The luminous Impromptu in B minor here receives it’s first recording, and proves to be as masterfully constructed a piece as it is an emotionally affecting one. Kanneh-Mason makes it sound easy, and although I don’t have a score I suspect it could be within reach of players working at the upper grades.

Deep River is the one piece here which is more widely appreciated; in this recording, it is delivered with a more dignified poise and reverence than ever: spine tingling!

The Bamboula offers another side to Coleridge-Taylor’s character, with a playful streak that Kanneh-Mason again conveys with aplomb, while the closing track, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child perhaps most acutely of all brings vividly to life the pathos that runs through so much of the music of the African-American spiritual tradition.

Closing Thoughts

Summertime is both a superb achievement from such a young artist, and a stunning milestone recording in its own right.

Shining spotlights both on this brilliant upcoming artist, and on several seriously neglected masterpieces of the solo piano literature, here is an album which no piano-lover will want to miss. Stunning!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.