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A tale of two cellists: Meet Laura van der Heijden and Sheku Kanneh-Mason

A tale of two cellists: Meet Laura van der Heijden and Sheku Kanneh-Mason
From BBC - January 31, 2018

What are the chances? You wait years for debut albums by cello-playing former winners of the BBC's Young Musician of the Year, then two come along at once.

2012 winner Laura van der Heijden was first out of the gates with 1948, an album reflecting that year's purge of musicians in Stalinist Russia.

A decree by the congress of composers denounced the likes of Prokofiev and Shostakovich for writing "inexpressive, unharmonious" music that "smells strongly of the spirit of the modern bourgeois music of Europe and America".

"You do not really know about the effect of a decree like that if you just hear about it in history books," explains van der Heijden. "But several composers were crying that day in the Moscow conservatory.

"It had a really huge effect on the musical community in Russia."

Her album includes compositions by Prokofiev and Myaskovsky, while Shostakovich appears on Sheku Kanneh-Mason's album via the cello concerto he performed to win 2016's Young Musician competition.

His record, called Inspiration, also features interpretations of Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (which the cellist memorably performed at last year's Bafta Awards).

"I put a lot of time into thinking about what I wanted to record," he explains of the eclectic track listing. "I wanted to pick pieces that I have loved for a long time."

Coincidentally, both musicians were educated in state schools, fitting their musical tuition around regular school hours.

"It was definitely the right decision," says van der Heijden, "because if you are a musician it's so easy to end up only in music circles, which is perhaps not the best way to have a very open mind."

Kanneh-Mason agrees: "I had a lot of time to play football at school, as well as doing maths and physics. It was wonderful to have that broader experience. I am very grateful."

The two musicians spoke about the challenges of making a debut album, and reflected on their experience of winning the BBC Young Musician title, in interviews with BBC News.

LAURA VAN DER HEIJDEN

It's six years since you won BBC Young Musician. Why did you wait so long to put out a CD?

I felt it was really important to wait until I was ready, and that I had found a repertoire I was really passionate about.

This Russian repertoire means a lot to me because I have had many links with Russian culture through my cello teacher, Leonid Gorokhov, and I have learnt Russian - I am still learning it!

What made you choose these works?

The subtitle of the CD is "In the shadow of 1948" because all of the pieces, apart from the Lyadov, are influenced by that year. My aim with the CD was to show the turbulence of that time, and how easily you could be in favour or out of favour with the government. Because Myaskovsky and Prokofiev both went from being incredibly popular composers to people who'd been banned from writing.

It's so hard to imagine what that must have been like.

Something I have found really interesting is how different their responses were. Someone like Shostakovich - you can really hear the torment in his music. That cold oppression. Whereas in Prokofiev's music, it's slightly more subtle and hidden.

One of the things we actually struggled with in the interpretation of the Prokofiev sonata was knowing to what extent his writing was ironic or satirical. His melodies can be so sunny and naive and childlike - but [we had to decide] whether they were written with this undertone of "this is what we are being forced to feel".

Obviously, you ca not interrogate these composers on their intentions, so how did you approach that?

Partly research. You have to approach it from all sides - exploring different phrasings, different interpretations of certain lines. But in the end, you have to play what feels most natural to you.

Did you play them in concert first?

Absolutely. That's another really important part of the recording process - because in performance, you change your view of pieces. There's only so far you can go in a practice room.

You recorded the album with pianist Petr Limonov. How does he affect the way you play?

That was really wonderful - to play these [pieces] with a Muscovite, who knows this culture inside out, and who has this inherent knowledge of the Russian soul.

For example, his grandfather fought in wars in Russia and he's had this experience of the turmoil of that time. As an outsider you can read about that, but you can never have direct experience. So playing with him was a great inspiration.

What's your working relationship like?

We disagree quite a lot - and I think that's very, very helpful for a working relationship because it means you dig deeper. The most interesting part of rehearsal begins when we start to argue our point of view. And usually at the end, we come up with something that neither of us had considered beforehand.

You started playing when you were six - and within four years you had a grade eight distinction not just on cello instrument but also the piano. How did you do it?

SHEKU KANNEH-MASON

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