What are the chances? You wait years for debut albums by cello-playing former winners of the BBC Young Musician, 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 don’t 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’ve 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’re 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’m 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.
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’ve had many links with Russian culture through my cello teacher, Leonid Gorokhov, and I’ve learnt Russian – I’m 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’ve 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’re being forced to feel”.