ABRSM Isata Kanneh-Mason Piano Inspiration

ABRSM • Piano Inspiration

Products featured here are selected for review by ANDREW EALES

ABRSM Publishing continue to focus on bringing out superb anthologies for different instruments and levels, widening the scope of developing players’ musical engagement. Their recent publishing successes for piano have included the three jazz collections Nikki Iles and Friends and the superb Pop Performer books which arrived last year.

Now they bring us two new anthologies of solo piano repertoire, curated by concert artist Isata Kanneh-Mason. These are notable collections which, for reasons I will unpack in this review, immediately rise to the top of my pile of recommended piano publications.

The first book is suitable for intermediate players in the Grade 4-6 bracket, the second for more advanced players, Grades 7-8+ (ARSM). Refreshingly, but potentially frustrating for some, the specific grade levels of the individual pieces are not stipulated, even though ABRSM twice suggest on the covers that the pieces can be used as own-choice repertoire in their Performance Grades.

Kanneh-Mason’s selections mix surprise with delight, novelty with familiar favourites, delivering an intoxicating and diverse blend of music that quite simply belongs on the piano of every player working at these levels.

Having already given a rough outline and positive verdict, I will shortly go on to list the musical contents of each book, describe the publications for the benefit of those unable to inspect them in a music store, and attempt to frame these volumes in their broader context…

With his various educational publications and superb Lang Lang Piano Book, it’s possible that a certain Chinese piano superstar has started a trend for artist-curated albums. If so, it is a fashion we can eagerly embrace, and upcoming concert artist Isata Kanneh-Mason is a natural fit for the approach.

ABRSM introduce the books thus:

The oldest of the Kanneh-Mason siblings, Isata studied at the Purcell School before attending London’s Royal Academy of Music as a recipient of the Sir Elton John Scholarship (she later performed with the star). Though still in her twenties, and having latterly eschewed the tired competition circuit, she has quickly established herself as a highly sought-after soloist worldwide.

Isata’s recordings with Decca Records (which include three solo albums and a disc with her brother Sheku) are critically applauded best-sellers, and have explored a dynamic and eclectic range of core classics and overlooked gems, thereby positively expanding the concert repertoire.

Who better, then, to curate these sheet music collections for developing players? Introducing them, Kanneh-Mason tells us,

Kanneh-Mason has an important and poignant personal testimony to share, and one which should give any reader pause for thought about the significance of representation and inclusion in the music learner’s curriculum:

Kanneh-Mason offers a finely balanced solution. The Piano Inspirations books are bursting at the seams with the core classical and contemporary pieces that fed her love of piano playing when growing up, complemented by exciting works by composers whose music is only now beginning to receive the recognition it rightly deserves:

With 16 pieces in the first book and just 12 in the second, and with such a broad remit and clear vision, Kanneh-Mason’s selection process must have necessitated considerable focus and discipline. Happily she has achieved the near-miraculous in bringing us two concise collections that brilliantly serve the developmental needs of players, while also making so eloquent and artistically compelling a case for diversity.

The first book contains the following 16 pieces:

  • Domenico Scarlatti: Aria (Sonata in D minor)
  • Eleanor Alberga: Only a Wish Away
  • Florence Price: The Goblin and the Mosquito
  • Robert Schumann: Knecht Ruprecht from Album für die Jugend
  • Isata Kanneh-Mason: Waltz
  • Edvard Grieg: Arietta from Lyric Pieces
  • Amy Beach: By the Still Waters
  • Jerry Brock (arr. Isata Kanneh-Mason): Sunrise, Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof
  • Isaac Albéniz: Tango from España
  • Erik Satie: Gymnopédie No.3
  • Dmitry Shostakovich: Dance from Dance of the Dolls
  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child
  • Witold Lutosławski: Bucolics No.1
  • W.A. Mozart: Andante from Sonata in C, K545
  • Natalie Klouda: Blue Marble – 1972
  • George Gershwin (arr. Alan Bullard): The Man I Love from Strike Up the Band!

This is a collection which undeniably offers a level of musical variety alongside close attention to the different developmental challenges pianists face at intermediate to early advanced level. The pieces are as consistently ripe in their pedagogic value as they are rich in their stylistic merit and cultural significance.

Underlining the crossover between Kannah-Mason’s educational vision and her own artistry, Amy Beach’s tender By the Still Waters is included here; the piece was one of many highlights on her Decca recording Summertime (2021).

Gershwin’s The Man I Love and Coleridge-Taylor’s soulful Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child were both also recorded for the Summertime album. They reappear here in simplified versions arranged by the marvellous Alan Bullard, happily retaining all the colours and delicious harmonies of the originals.

Natalie Klouda’s Blue Marble – 1972 celebrates the first photograph of the whole earth from space, taken in 1972 by the Apollo 17 mission to the moon. You can hear it performed by Isata Kanneh-Mason here:

Kanneh-Mason’s own Waltz is a charming addition to the collection, as is her arrangement of the popular Sunrise, Sunset from the musical film Fiddler on the Roof, the latter requiring a larger hand stretch that will suit teenage and adult learners more comfortably than younger players.

In this video, Kanneh-Mason performs her Waltz, and then tells us more about its background:

When it comes to the early advanced repertoire, decent graded anthologies are surprisingly thin on the ground, my current favourite being the final volume in ABRSM’s recent Core Classics series, reviewed here.

Kanneh-Mason’s second volume ventures further into ARSM territory, but offers a compelling mix of music:

  • Frédéric Chopin: Mazurka in B flat
  • Aaron Copland: Sentimental Melody
  • Claude Debussy: The Little Shepherd
  • Alexandre Desplat: Dance on the Porch from Little Women
  • Sergei Prokofiev: Prelude from Ten Pieces
  • J.S. Bach: Praeambulum from Partita No.5
  • Bohuslav Martinů: Tanec loutek from Loutky
  • Sergei Rachmaninoff: Mélodie in E major from 5 Morceaux de fantasie
  • Clara Schumann: Notturno from Soirées musicales
  • Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Deep River from 24 African American Melodies
  • George Gershwin: Prelude No.1 from Three Preludes
  • Errollyn Wallen: Dream

I can easily identify with Kanneh-Mason’s enthusiasm for all these pieces, but when the review copy arrived the Prokofiev Prelude immediately stood out. I loved playing this as a youngster (and still do), always rejoicing in the glissandi of the quirky central episode, but the sheet music is rather hard to come by. Not any more, and I think it justifies the purchase before looking any further!

But it doesn’t take long for the realisation to sink in: this volume is simply awash with stunning material, as eye-watering an assembly of brilliant miniatures as any I have seen for players at this level.

With just 12 pieces here, and 28 across the two books combined, it is inevitable that a few significant piano composers are missing. But given the relative brevity of each publication, what is remarkable is the sheer number of the key influencers from each style and period for whom Kanneh-Mason has eagerly made room.

By any standards, these collections are truly impressive, and they clearly offer a superb gateway to the wider piano repertoire.

The Piano Inspiration books enjoy a classy presentation, with matt card covers sporting vibrant photography, staple binding, and ivory coloured paper within. They have 44 and 52 pages respectively. Each book begins with A note from Isata (her introduction) and a contents page. The rest of the pages are taken up with the scores, presented in ABRSM’s superb house style, which can easily be considered among the best.

The music editing is by Richard Jones, who as ever proves himself to be the right choice for the job. The scores themselves are generously spaced, well engraved, and benefit from added fingering that has been reviewed by esteemed teacher Ruth Gerald.

It is especially impressive that even in the easier pieces, such as the Grade 4 Scarlatti Aria and Grade 5 Mozart Andante, Jones has adopted an authentic approach that avoids editorial intervention: unlike some anthologies and other exam publications, there are no added dynamics or phrasing here.

Generally speaking, the pieces are organised in ascending order of difficulty, so that the player can work from the start to finish of each book, without either accidentally missing or deliberately avoiding pieces. This also gives the player a meaningful sense of progression.

Recordings of Kanneh-Mason performing all the works would of course have been the icing on the cake; in their absence her videos of the newly commissioned pieces are very welcome, and of course there are already many other excellent recordings of most of the pieces presented here.

In her introduction, Kanneh-Mason recalls playing Debussy’s Little Shepherd in her Grade 7 piano exam, a small but memorable marker along the route that ultimately led to her concert career. This glimpse of the artist’s childhood is telling, nostalgic in tone. She reveals,

In our brave new world of home-recorded grade submissions, digital-only “performance” diplomas, and declining opportunity for live performance, we must wonder whether and where new generations of upcoming artists might equally find their inspiration, develop stagecraft and audience rapport.

At this crucial junction, it seems to me that care must be exercised, lest we collectively take a wrong turn. Kanneh-Mason’s Piano Inspiration books certainly give me a measure of hope, packed as they are with music which cries out to be shared with others.

With their uniquely comfortable blend of great music by composers from such different backgrounds, these are undoubtedly landmark publications, demonstrating beyond doubt that cultural integration and enrichment go hand in hand.

So here it is: the milestone many of us have been looking out for, a unifying shared playlist, and a memorable marker for our collective journey. Beyond their obvious appeal as artist-curated anthologies, and overshooting the promise of their titles, these books literally deliver Piano Inspiration.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.