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Isata Kanneh-Mason (piano) 
rec. 4-6 November 2020 and 1 March 2021, Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool
DECCA 485 1663 [62:52]

Following on from her recording of music by Clara Schumann (review), Isata Kanneh-Mason has turned to North America for her Summertime recital. “I really enjoy playing American music… I wanted to explore one overwhelming theme and the variety and contrast you can discover within that.”

There is a delicious improvisatory feel to the opening Summertime, Earl Wild’s virtuoso arrangement lending itself to the shimmering colours and skilful dynamic layering that Isata Kanne-Mason clearly relishes. I Got Rhythm is both punchy and a glittering fountain of notes, and we’re off to an excellent start. This programme has been built around Samuel Barber, whose Nocturne takes John Field’s musical invention and introduces it to eloquently spicy modern harmonies and occasional polytonality in a work that develops quite a head of steam through its climax. Kanneh-Mason admits that Barber’s Piano Sonata was the beginning of an obsession for this composer, throwing herself into the work’s dramatic essence: “[Barber] presents drama in an unashamed fashion, and doesn’t shy away from it… it feels very multi-dimensional. I don’t need to hold anything back, and I feel that the whole range of the piano is being used in its full capacity.” Framed by powerful fireworks and virtuosity, this performance delivers on the tragic might of that slow third movement and is an entirely satisfying rendition. This is of course a work that has been recorded many times, and there is a certain consensus around Marc-André Hamelin’s recording on Hyperion as one of the best modern recordings (review). Vladimir Horowitz’s premiere recording on RCA is of course an unavoidable reference, and while his fearsomely emphatic playing in the first movement and general sense of wild explosiveness holds its own irresistible magnetic force, Isata Kanneh-Mason’s performance has its own compelling character and need fear no negative criticism on my part.

After the Barber sonata everything else risks feeling like encore material so it might arguably have come a little later in the programme, but there can be no complaints about the rich selection of pieces that follow. Percy Grainger’s succulent version of Gershwin’s The Man I Love is given a gloriously full-fat treatment here, contrasting with the swinging syncopation of the first of his Three Preludes. I love the laid-back but non-lazy feel of the second prelude, and Kanneh-Mason’s light touch in the third has plenty of wit and a keen sense of this miniature masterpiece’s innate dynamism. The impressionistic By the Still Waters by Amy Beach is “definitely the calmest point of the whole album”, and this is followed by Aaron Copland’s amusingly cartoonish novelty scherzo The Cat and the Mouse.

The last four pieces are by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, an English composer who often toured the USA and is best known for Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast. The Impromptu No 2 in B minor receives its premiere recording here, and it turns out to be quite a lyrically bluesy beauty. The final three are all from Coleridge-Taylor’s 24 Negro Melodies, the lively dance of The Bamboula framed by heartfelt melodies Deep River, and most movingly, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.

Attractively presented in a summery yellow and beautifully recorded on a fine sounding instrument, as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing to dislike about this well-considered and superbly executed recording.

Dominy Clements

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Summertime (arr. Earl Wild) [3:29]
I Got Rhythm (arr. Earl Wild) [2:13]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Nocturne (Hommage to John Field), Op 33 (1959) [3:27]
Piano Sonata in E-flat minor, Op 26 (1947/49) [19:08]
The Man I Love (arr. Grainger) [3:17]
Three Preludes [6:32]
Amy BEACH (1867-1944)
By the Still Waters, Op 114 [3:07]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
The Cat and the Mouse [4:10]
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Impromptu No 2 in B minor [4:36]
Deep River [6:17]
The Bamboula [2:26]
Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child [4:01]

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