Carnival of the Animals

The Kanneh-Mason Family

JEFFREY HAMPTON
COVERING CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL MUSIC ARTISTS
TDR REGULAR CONTRIBUTOR / August 21, 2021

I have always been a fan of classical music at work in other art forms, whether performance art, poetry, or photography. However, in my opinion, the choice of music in many artful amalgamations is relatively safe, verging on mundane. The often paired Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky) and visual media come to mind. But the Kanneh-Masons’ debut album, Carnival of the Animals, is anything but mundane

This collaboration sees the Kanneh-Masons – a family supergroup of seven siblings, all classical music prodigies – team up with Michael Morpurgo and Olivia Coleman.

Micheal Morpurgo, known for the novel War Horse (adapted into a film by Steven Spielberg in 2011), provides poetry and narration.  While Academy Award winner and star of The Crown, Olivia Coleman, also contributes as a narrator on the album. 

You might recognize the Kanneh-Mason family name as some of the siblings have already enjoyed high-profile gigs. Sheku Kanneh-Mason played at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding and has released several critically acclaimed pieces for the cello. His older sister, Isata Kanneh-Mason, had a strong debut with Romance – the Piano Music of Clara Schumann.  A personal favorite album is her new release, Summertime, from July of 2021, featuring American composers.

The centerpiece of Carnival of the Animals is the lovely suite for a chamber group of the same name.  Here the music is woven with poetry, each providing context imagery and humor to the music.  The music is wonderfully played, and the whole performance gives the work a storybook quality, a vibe heightened by the cover art, which depicts the Kanneh-Masons as cartoons surrounded by animals.

Carnival of the Animals has always been a funny work, with some of the movements named after animals. As it progresses, it seems to juxtapose humans and animals by capturing pianists in their natural habitat, running scales, and finger exercises as two pianos slowly lose time with one another.  The poetry is never distracting, giving each movement an excellent introduction.  One funny moment happens before the movement “The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Woods,” which has a poem that plays up the humor as the clarinet joins in early with the narrator. One can’t help but hear “Cuckoo” every following time we hear the solo clarinet.

The second half of the album doesn’t fair as strongly, though. The second half is a short story of sorts. “Grandpa Christmas” is excellent and sentimental in its own right, but the synthesis we find in “Carnival of the Animals” is missing.  The music is a variety of different composers and instrument combinations. Here we have pieces of Edvard Grieg, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Bela Bartok, and Eric Whitacre.  They are delightfully realized but do not gel as well with the narration.  Often the narration runs longer than the piece of music (none of which are long), resulting in a disjointed and distracting experience.

The final piece on Carnival is an arrangement of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”  Overall a pleasant arrangement and warm finale to the album as a whole.  The arrangement was done by the Kanneh-Masons and is delightful.

Carnival of the Animals is a robust initial effort from the Kanneh-Masons and breathes new life into the piece of the same name. The sheer amount of talent put into this album produces a unique performance.  Even though the second half may not be as strong, it is worth a listen.


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