Nigel Kennedy in recital: Bach meets Kennedy Meets Gershwin. Llewellyn Hall, Friday January 25, 8pm.
Nigel Kennedy walked on stage while his ensemble (cello, bass and two guitars) played a tremolo crescendo chord of anticipation. The chord ebbed and dissipated leaving Kennedy, Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin in G minor, and the audience connected in an electric current. Kennedy’s reverence for Bach invested every note of the Adagio with unique authority, grounded in years of training with Yehudi Menuhin and honed by his daily practice. Every phrase of the Fugue unfolded like a step in a complex spell, enthralling the audience.
If he had walked out of the auditorium and into the street, we would all have risen from our seats and followed so as not to lose one note. Despite Kennedy’s efforts to bring more of himself into the interpretation with his rough chording and accentuated rubato, the magic held fast: what we heard was Bach playing Kennedy – brilliant!
The concert provided a fascinating demonstration of a genius in search of his true identity. Understandably, Kennedy is looking for a way to create a sound that is distinctively his own, blending the improvisational freedoms of jazz with his own compositions and incomparable technique.
I was not so impressed by his piano playing. While faultless, it had none of the conviction of his violin mastery. His suite The Magician of Lublin is based on the novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer and describes characters and episodes evoking the life and spirit of the shtetls of old Poland. Kennedy created the atmospheric introduction using electronic looping of sampled phrases - a kind of "electric-shadows fugue" that nicely referenced the opening Bach.
I wished that he had continued to use this medium throughout to provide a continuous narrative thread. While there were shining moments of technical brilliance from solos by each musician and nice moments of ensemble energy, I found the overall work rambling and lacking a dramatic arc shaping the music.
Gershwin might seem an unlikely choice of composer for the virtuoso, but Kennedy once again proved his real genius for finding the essential beauty of a piece of music – even a song as well-worn as The Man I Love. There were some odd, esoteric departures from each of the arrangements: They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Rhapsody in Claret and Blue, Porgy and Bess, How Long Has this been Going On and Oh! Lady Be Good, but whenever Kennedy returned to the melody on the violin it was like hearing the song in all the fresh originality of the day it was composed.
The encores were eccentric and unexpectedly generous, including an exquisite tribute to Stefane Grappelli; Jimmy Hendrix’s Hey Joe and a sweet reimagining of Fritz Kreisler’s party piece Danny Boy, which followed a less than accurately ornamented version of Out on the Ocean.
I hope that Kennedy does not waste too much more time on the quest for a cool new identity. His greatness is already well and truly alive in the stunning performances of the masters of the classical musical tradition, and in his electronic reveries. It will be performances like Kennedy’s interpretation of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 and the solo opening to The Magician of Lublin that will remain unforgettable in the years to come.
Just play the fiddle on your own Nigel – it’s amazing!