Brighton Festival 2021 classical – Isata Kanneh-Mason, piano

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Wednesday, 26th May 2021, 4:33 pm
Isata Kanneh-Mason - credit Robin Clewley

Brighton Festival 2021 classical – Isata Kanneh-Mason, piano, in Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Tuesday 25 May, 1pm (1 hour, no interval). Wolfgang Mozart, Piano Sonata in C minor K457; Fryderyck Chopin, Ballade No 2 in F minor; George Gershwin, Three Preludes; Samuel Barber, Piano Sonata Op26.

Talk around lockdown lifting has wondered how differently we will emerge. And Brighton Festival reeled as one of Britain’s new young primetime, TV-glossed classical stars made her own re-entry. It was a leap beyond pandemic documentaries of large domestic family music-making bliss and fun seen from the nation’s sofas.

In her first live concert appearance since May 17’s government unlocking of live indoor concerts, Isata Kanneh-Mason laid down a statement about where she will be going next in her career. At a time of day when the audience were happy for a semi-relaxed midday show of understated, contained jubilation at the new conditional freeing of social restriction, they got a bombshell.

Out stepped the pencil-slim pianist, shoulder-to-toe in glittering silver evening gown. Gone were the familiar long braided and coloured locks: instead, a very full, shorter cut, flashbacking some of the 1970s West End musical stars in Hair, complete with big hoop earrings.

With this image switch came a major musical declaration to her followers. Pre-pandemic, she was strongly featuring the 19th Century piano virtuoso, Clara Schumann. Indeed, Kanneh-Mason having premiered the German’s Concerto in Sussex with Worthing Symphony Orchestra in September 2019, she would have played it again at this Brighton Festival, but for coronavirus curtailing of musician numbers onstage.

Now Kanneh-Mason lines up a 20th Century virtuoso she will reinstate in the public mind – Vladimir Horowitz. The Russian superstar premiered and ultimately shaped the cracklingly diffuse Piano Sonata of Samuel Barber. As in Barber’s justly popular Violin Concerto, the soloist giving its first performance elbow-locked the composer into prioritising their own limelight over his own musical ones, and letting them put on a crowd-pleasing final movement, thus increasing the chance of further performances.

The Barber Piano Sonata won’t rival the Violin Concerto in public demand but it projects Kanneh-Mason forward at this moment in her career. Stepping away from the media landmarks of royal wedding soloist brother and musical soirees among famous siblings, she is striding further forward as her own self, and standing up alongside, in Horowitz, a second legendary figure to have electrified their public.

This Sonata was commissioned in 1947 by none other than Barber’s more famous fellow-American celebrities, Broadway songwriters Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers. And today, here it was, preluded by some George Gershwin. Kanneh-Mason’s music school studies with Joanna MacGregor seem here to have further fruition. Get the flavour?

Get the rhythm in the Gershwin Prelude No 1, the blues in No2 and the bubbling sip of Spain in No 3. Then take a hit between the eyes from the Sonata with Barber’s post-war offloading in its multiple moods and compositional guises.

Kanneh-Mason gave us the searing storm and anger of its opening movement. In its glisteningly fast scherzo, she sent its several waterfalls tumbling down their shared slope. Then the conveyed the dreams, frets, and eventual dying resignations of its mesmerising slow movement – where Barber wanted to finish the piece.

Then arrived the Horowitz-instigated finale which few but he had the technical power and wizardry to pull off. It’s not quite a circus showpiece but with stacks to watch and hear, it was an assault course for which Kanneh-Mason appeared not only adequately endowed, but relishing the prospect and the experience of simultaneously sharing it.

The sell-out audience of fans gave her their Brighton whoops and cheers, then adjourned to the city piazzas and haunts to wonder just what had hit them.

in this swift single-hour presentation, Kanneh-Mason set out to be virtuosic in mindset from the off. Her Mozart C minor Sonata came in cut-glass, with two of his fastest Allegros, its first-movement sudden stops and rhetorical gestures flashing past. The piece was delivered, not in the virtually uninterrupted straight sweep of Paul Lewis’s K333 here the previous week, but with careful gaps between each individually-coloured movement, the shape and design of which Kanneh-Mason sharply elucidated, including sudden instants of thoughtfulness.

Similarly explosive was her Chopin F major Ballad, its contrasting section volcanically unleashed in its raging aggression, but its vastly different surroundings lastly rounded off with pensive reflection.

This was a formidably-bladed forward thrust. If her popular admirers stay with her in the concert hall through this next musical chapter, which includes the release of singles off her new album – called Summertime (who wrote that?) – the classical music world will further rejoice.

Richard Amey

The Festival’s ninth live, socially distanced-audience indoor concert in nine days since Covid-19 Pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020. Permitted audience: 250 (Dome seating capacity is 1,700). Festival operated with government Culture Recovery Fund support. This concert was also livestreamed at £5.

Masks mandatory, one-way routes. Seating bookable in household groups, sitting together. In the raised-area stalls and upstairs, two/three empty seats separate those occupied by individuals or groups. Cabaret table-seating on auditorium floor accessed by temporary stairs.

Audience measures Search and Trace, hand sanitisation, temperature test, tickets scan-checking, bag search (max size A3). Toilets in use. No cloakroom. Bar drinks orderable pre-concert only, and brought to the buyers in their auditorium seats. Social distancing everywhere. At the end, the audience are stewarded out, section by section. Free, reduced-content concert programme sheets.