Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
January 15 2023
Review: William Ruff
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason: a young artist with a very bright future
It’s not often that a concert review becomes a news story – but it’s not every day that one of Nottingham’s extraordinary musical siblings makes her debut in the RCH’s Sunday Morning Piano Series. Not only was Jeneba Kanneh-Mason’s recital a sell-out but RCH records were broken – with more tickets sold for this concert than any other in the long history of the Sunday Morning series.
Jeneba chose a wide-ranging programme, starting with Beethoven’s early sonata, Op.10 no.3, the epitome of youthful promise. Its opening movement bursts with energy and athleticism and features some typically explosive surprises. However, it’s the slow movement which is the emotional heart of the work, containing some of the most profoundly expressive writing in all early Beethoven. This Largo moves in a solemn, funereal manner, featuring sudden anguished outbursts and suggesting the final extinction of even a ray of hope. Jeneba handled all this with considerable maturity – as she did the complete change of mood of the following two movements: the delicately lilting Menuetto and the whimsical finale, with all its false starts and mischievous surprises.
Jeneba also celebrated Rachmaninov’s birthday (150 this year) by playing one of the Études-Tableaux (Op.39 no.5). It comes from a set of short piano pieces which fuse technical and musical challenges with a distinctively Russian poetic vision. As the title suggests, each piece is a ‘picture’, but one which the composer doesn’t specify, preferring listeners to use their imaginations. This is music which generates huge emotional force through hugely complex writing for the piano. Jeneba captured the fire-breathing drama and intensity of the piece, allowing every detail to emerge with sharply expressive detail.
Debussy’s three Estampes are also highly pictorial, although here the pictures are very specific, the musical equivalent of exquisite Japanese prints. The first, ‘Pagodas’, is a distillation for piano of Debussy’s first encounter with the Javanese gamelan at the 1889 Paris Exhibition, full of exotic harmonies and delicate colours, the piano suggesting traditional gongs and bells. The second ‘Evening in Granada’ is again wonderfully evocative and Jeneba responded sensitively to its changing moods: the nonchalantly graceful rhythm of its opening, the strumming guitars, the sun-drenched picture of Spain as a country populated by people for whom strong contrasts are a way of life. And then in the final ‘Gardens in the Rain’ Debussy explores his own childhood memories of rain preventing play…until at the end the sun comes out and the child is happy again. Throughout the set Jeneba demonstrated just how wide and subtle her tonal palette is when it comes to evoking vivid imagery.
Florence Price’s Fantasie Nègre, a highly virtuosic version of an African-American spiritual, was the last item on Jeneba’s programme. However, with 1000+ members of the audience cheering their approval, she was hardly likely to escape without an encore and Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso fitted the bill perfectly.
Still only 20, Jeneba is a star in the making, if ever there was one.
Jeneba Kanneh-Mason performing in the Sunday Morning Piano Series at Nottingham’s Royal Concert Hall