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Sheku Kanneh-Mason (cello)
CBSO cellos, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla
rec. 2017, Studio 2, Abbey Road Studios, London (Cohen); CBSO Centre, Birmingham, (Casals; Hadar; Marley; Saint-SaŽns; Trad); Symphony Hall, Birmingham (nocturne); Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, (concerto, Offenbach)
DECCA 483 2948 [64:21]

Serge PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Cello Sonata in C, op. 119 (1949) [24:44]
Yuri SHAPORIN (1887-1966)
Five Pieces for Cello and Piano, op. 25 (1956) [20:11]
Nikolai MYASKOVSKY (1881-1950)
Cello sonata No.2 in A minor, op. 81 (1948) [22:08]
Anatoly LYADOV (1855-1914)
Prelude in B minor, op.11 no.1 (1885) arr. for cello and piano, Moderato [3:33]
Laura van der Heijden (cello)
Petr Limonov (piano)
rec. 2017, Music Room, Champs Hill, UK

At the time of writing it is halfway through the bi-annual BBC Young Musician of the Year competition in the UK so it seems fitting to be reviewing two debut discs from two past winners, Laura van der Heijden (2014) and Sheku Kanneh-Mason (2016) and we even have a contribution on Sheku’s disc from Guy Johnson, a winner back in 2000. Any reader who watches the competition will I feel sure agree with me that it is a wonderful ‘feel good fest’ which uplifts the spirit and reestablishes one’s faith in young people and the future, not that music alone can be its salvation but while there are young people who are so talented and driven to pursue a career in music with all the dedication and hard work it entails there is hope. There are similar examples in sport and in many other fields in which young people buck the stereotypically presented image of a generation of self-obsessed and self-indulgent wasters and we need these examples to help us ‘oldies’ to believe we might just leave the world a better place than when we entered it.

Sheku has entitled his disc Inspiration because all the pieces and the musicians, composers and artists associated with them have been an inspiration to him. All the pieces are short, apart of course for his favourite cello concerto which won him the crown of Young Musician of the Year 2016 just as it had for Guy Johnson in 2000. Sheku begins the disc with a beautiful Jewish melody, a favourite piece of his which he heard first while playing in his school’s klezmer band. Each piece has been carefully selected to show different facets of his playing and this one emphasizes the richness and warmth of it. His approach with Saint-SaŽns’ Le Cygne is to draw the notes out in a way that makes the tune sound even more poignant than the notes reveal. Poignancy is also on display in the traditional air that the great Casals arranged. Likewise the same element is to the fore in the gorgeous nocturne Shostakovich came up with for the film The Gadfly and it easy to understand why the suite he made from his music for it has had such success in its own right.

Then we arrive at the ‘meat in the sandwich’ with Shostakovich’s Cello concerto No.1 which performance knocked the socks off both audience and judges two years ago enabling him to heft the trophy of this prestigious competition. I have heard many interpretations of this wonderful work which I never tire of listening to and I find new things in it to admire and revel in on each hearing. The overarching impression in Sheku’s rendition is his real love for it and that comes through with each and every note. His playing is both muscular and reverent while being able to draw back from the powerful when necessary and inject the most rapturously plangent playing into the performance as he shows to great effect in the second movement which could easily have you in tears. Sheku clearly knows this work very well indeed but at no time does that translate into carelessness and he plays the work as if it meant everything to him amounting to a hugely impressive performance that will have the listener return to it time after time; one can’t help speculating on how thrilled Shostakovich himself would have been by it. Of course it helps to have a cello that is up to the job and his permanently loaned Brothers Amati of c.1610 is a superb vehicle to drive this work and both cello and cellist seem as one in the endeavor. It is almost painful to have to leave this concerto when it comes to an end and makes you wish it was longer; it finished all too soon. The CBSO serves the young soloist very well indeed willing him on with some truly magnificent playing with its young and recently appointed Chief conductor firmly in command and rooting for Sheku to show his best.

Frankly what comes after can only be an anti-climax and I felt that I’d have preferred an order that put the concerto last rather in amongst the ‘titbits’. That said the chosen pieces are all useful in showing Sheku’s different shades of playing and warmth is again on show with Offenbach’s Les Larmes de Jacqueline with some beautiful phrasing. Casals’ Sardana brings a folk element into the proceedings and it is here that he shares the stage with Guy Johnson whom he has consulted many times over the years. Sheku writes that this is a difficult piece but you’d never know it from the sense of ease that comes across.

Bringing something totally different to the party Sheku chose Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry which he arranged himself turning a reggae piece into a beautifully wrought homage to an admired artist who died far too young. Likewise Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah transcends the smoky sound of Cohen’s voice and becomes a silky smooth work in his capable hands.

The CD is entitled Inspiration and one can easily see what inspired him in these pieces and he does them all the greatest justice. There is no doubt whatsoever that the name of Sheku Kanneh-Mason is one to watch for he shall surely go far which trajectory he richly deserves.

Turning to Laura van der Heijden we have another immensely talented young cellist whose tone is equally rich and complex. In her introductory remarks she explains how she has become fascinated by all things Russian; art, literature, the language and, of course, music and why the choice of album title was made; 1948 was the year the infamous decree on ‘formalism’ was promulgated which identified six composers as the main culprits who allegedly ‘pursued a path in music that put form ahead of substance in a crass attempt to ape their Western colleagues’. As musicologist Marina Frolova-Walker writes in her highly informative notes it is ironic that Nikolai Myaskovsky should have been one of them since he had voluntarily turned his back on modernism almost twenty years before making you wonder just how much knowledge or understanding these functionaries had of music or if jealousy had a role to play in who was singled out and who was not. As she says composers were therefore understandably reluctant to “put their heads above the parapet” so the following year and for some time after there were few significant works produced since composers were unsure of what was expected of them only what they must studiously avoid. Against such a background it is therefore surprising that Myaskovsky should compose his second cello sonata, which was nominated for a Stalin prize and awarded one though in a typically perverse way only second class which Frolova-Walker suspects was a coded message that Myaskovsky shouldn’t be too cocky though this music was indisputably along the lines prescribed. Incidentally a second prize attracted only half the prize money though even this was beyond most workers’ dreams. Myaskovsky, who in his career won no fewer than five Stalin prizes, more than any other composer, presumably felt the allegations were totally unwarranted for someone considered ‘Father of the Soviet symphony’ and therefore wrote no letter of repentance.

Myaskovsky’s cello sonata is indeed a rapturously beautiful work whose style has nothing in common with the times in which it was written but offers much more than a nod in the direction of 19th century romanticism. In fact the sonata is in keeping with his generally preferred style that is Russian to the very core with achingly poignant themes tapping into the famous ‘Russian soul’ examining Man’s place on Earth and the acceptance of his fate. The first movement’s uncompromisingly engaging theme is easily matched by the second’s equally lush one at the same time allowing the cello to make bold and impassioned statements. The third movement in contrast is fast paced and though in places it looks back to the sonata’s beginning it also manages to inject a positive and hopeful note on which to end that as Marina Frolova-Walker points out indicates a debt to the sound world of French composers like Faurť, Franck and Poulenc. It is no wonder that the work gained him another Stalin prize but that at the same time he should still regarded in official circles as ‘suspect’ is truly head scratchingly bizarre.

Though Prokofiev’s sonata looked to Myaskovsky’s as a model it is imbued with all the tell-tale elements that immediately identify its composer as its author; Prokofiev’s style of writing is quite unique and unmistakable. Again the booklet’s author offers a valuable insight into Prokofiev’s dilemma of, on the one hand wishing to reject the conservatism of the past personified in his eyes by his one-time teacher Lyadov whose dogmatic approach he had rebelled against while a pupil and on the other managing to tread the necessarily fine line demanded by the authorities. It is ironic then that he deferred to a degree to Myaskovsky’s approach and in doing so swallow his pride by taking a leaf out his friend’s book, one Myaskovsky had developed partly as a result of also being a pupil of the same Lyadov! That said the sonata is pure Prokofiev though it is a lot more lyrical than much of his pugnaciously challenging compositions and whatever the motivation for its lyricism and relatively gentle form it is a supremely attractive and successful work. It provides a wonderful vehicle for Laura van der Heijden’s gorgeously rich cello sound.

In complete contrast comes Yuri Shaporin’s Five Pieces for Cello and Piano, op.25. If the name is unfamiliar to any readers that is of no surprise for his works are all too rarely heard but these pieces will certainly spark an interest, making the listener want to explore further. His most famous work, his only opera, The Decembrists which enjoyed much success in Soviet times was quickly dropped from the repertoire of opera houses post 1990 while his The Story of the Battle for the Russian Earth also understandably ticked all the right socialist realist boxes. These five pieces are gloriously rhapsodic in form allowing both instruments to explore their partnership to the full and would also prove to be acceptable in the authorities’ eyes and ears.

As if to ‘square the circle’ the disc concludes with a movement from Lyadov’s Prelude in B minor, op.11 no.1 (1885), arranged for cello and piano which dates from 1885 and shows itself as being from the same sound world as the Myaskovsky and Shaporin works which was also an influence upon the Prokofiev as filtered through his friend.

The works selected by Laura van der Heijden for her debut disc were an inspired choice allowing for her admiration for all things culturally Russian coupled with their ability to show her prowess as a cellist to the full and showcasing works too rarely heard. The duo of her and Petr Limonov which has blossomed over several years into a musical partnership of note allows for memorable performances here. Petr Limonov is an illuminating pianist whose sympathetic accompaniment creates something quite special and many more discs from these two thoughtful and insightful musicians will hopefully follow. Choosing these rarely heard works for a debut disc was a brave decision but one that has paid off really well.

Two debut discs from two past winners of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition give us delightful performances of cello works from a wide range of composers and which join a veritable library of recordings from past winners and runners up emphasizing the importance of the competition. Judging from the 5 winners in the categories who will be showcased in the semi-final due today as I write and the 3 remaining who will battle it out in Sunday’s final we are about to discover some more prodigiously talented musicians and I can’t wait!

Steve Arloff

Yosef HADAR (1926-2006)
Evening of Roses (Erev Shel Shoshanim) transc. Sheku Kanneh-Mason, arr. Tom Hodge [3:03]
Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
The Swan (Le Cygne) arr. Tom Hodge [2:35]
Trad arr. Pablo CASALS (1876-1973)
Song of the Birds (El Cant Dels Ocells) [2:58]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Nocturne from The Gadfly Suite, op. 97a [5:05]
Cello concerto No.1 in E flat major, op. 97a [31:27]
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Jacqueline’s Tears (Les Larmes de Jacqueline), op. 76 No. 2 [7:11]
Sardana, with Guy Johnson (cello) [6 :03]
Bob MARLEY (1945-1981)
No Woman, No Cry arr. Sheku Kanneh-Mason [2:29]
Leonard COHEN (1934-2016)
Hallelujah, arr. Tom Hodge [3:30]



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