Interview with Isata Kanneh-Mason

Posted on April 9, 2020


Pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, the eldest of the seven talented siblings, is due to play a concert for Saffron Hall’s Key Players: those who have contributed to the hall’s funds by “buying” a key on its Steinway piano. She recently issued her first album to celebrate the 200th birthday of Clara Schumann a lot of which was recorded in the hall on that very piano.

Asked how she chose Saffron Hall for recording she replied that it had been recommended by Dominic of the Decca label who had previously recorded other artists in the hall.  She also disclosed that she had attended the hall herself to hear her sister and “loved the acoustic and the piano.”

The acoustic of the hall definitely helped. Although the microphones were, in her view, placed very close to the piano, the warmth and evenness of sound really made for a really excellent recording.

“I can tell almost immediately whether the piano is properly set up and will be a delight to play”.  She opined that the hall’s Steinway worked perfectly with the acoustic. “With a bad piano you have to work out what can be done do to get the best out it, but with a good one you can confidently test it to its limits.”

Steinways are Isata’s favourite pianos. She has played most makes and feels that a Steinway is simply more versatile. A piano like a Fazioli is great for Mozart but is too light both in action and timbre for, say, Beethoven – “you can’t get the same level of depth”.

Turning to the programme for the concert which comprises an early Beethoven piano sonata, a Chopin Nocturne, two further Nocturnes by Poulenc and Gershwin’s Three Preludes, Isata commented that, whilst it can be nice to have a themed programme, she wanted on this occasion to produce a very varied one. In particular she has a passion for the different ways composers approach the nocturne and had recently been concentrating on American repertoire.

Beethoven’s Sonata in A major, Op.2 No.2 is dedicated to Haydn and, whilst showing some flashes of what was to become trademark Beethoven, is essentially Haydnesque. The contemporary critics considered its chromatic central section to be “too learned”. The beautifully peaceful, sotto voce, beginning to the Chopin’s Nocturne No.13 in C minor gives no clue to the virtuosic strength needed later in the piece and the almost Rachmaninov-like ending.  Very different from the Chopin are the two Poulenc Nocturnes, Nos.5 and 7.  They are also very different from each other with the delicate tracery of No.5 in contrast with the lyricism and pastoral quality of No.7.  Finally come Gershwin’s Preludes.  Unmistakeably Gershwin with strong jazz influences these were surprisingly written two years after Rhapsody in Blue – they sound as if they might have been written earlier.

Isata is absolutely confident that the combination of the Steinway and the hall will allow all the nuances of these different pieces to come shining through.  She is really excited to be performing at the hall and hopes to come back many times.  Asked which key she would choose to buy she replied, “top C to be controversial”.

The Key Players evening has been rescheduled for Tuesday 27 October, 7.30pm. Click here to find out more about becoming a Key Player.


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