ECO 40th Anniversary Season – Kennedy at the Barbican

Bach – Suite No.1 in C
Bach – Concerto for Violin in A minor
Bach – Concerto for Violin in E Major
Bach – Concerto for Violin and Oboe

English Chamber Orchestra with Nigel Kennedy

Reviewed by: Jason Boyd

Reviewed: 15 November, 2000
Venue: Barbican Centre, London

Bring together a torn sleeveless jacket, a baggy white shirt, stained jog bottoms tucked in red socks, shiny green shoes and a rather large helping of musical talent and we have Nigel Kennedy. Looking dishevelled and scruffy, Kennedy teamed up again with the English Chamber Orchestra, celebrating its 40th anniversary, for an all-Bach concert marking the 250th year of the composer’s death.

The relationship between Kennedy and the ECO is a strong one, not least due to the overwhelming success of their recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons which sold over two million copies world-wide, keeping it at the top of the UK’s Classical Chart for six months! The orchestra with started Bach’s Suite No.1 in C. This was a good, solid performance, animated and fresh. I would have preferred a different orchestral layout, with bass instruments in the middle for a more authentic sound.

Due to the late arrival of oboist John Anderson, Kennedy changed the programme order, and made his first appearance with the A minor Violin Concerto, which was lively and engaging, particularly the last movement, a rollicking gigue in 9/8. Kennedy was not only a delight to hear but to watch. His foot-stomping and gliding moves to different string sections was inspiring – it seemed he was at war, inviting each group of instrumentalists to take him on.

The E major Concerto was equally well executed with remarkable interplay between all the musicians, none fazed by having Kennedy lunge towards them. Instead they simply answered back in fugal sections with fervid exuberance.

For the violin and oboe concerto, Kennedy and Anderson made an infallible duo. Looking remarkably calm, John Anderson played with lyrical beauty, entwining melodies with the violin and reaching the top E in the Adagio section without effort. This was a performance of fine artistry, as was the two-violin concerto for violins, Barbara Doll (fondly referred to by Kennedy as ’Barbie Doll’) proved to be a well-matched partner for Kennedy, albeit one not quite possessing his confidence but not overshadowed. The wonderful and familiar slow movement was played with a melancholy sensitivity that displayed the performers’ rapport – an inexhaustible profusion of beautiful unbroken melodic lines. As Kennedy himself remarked, every note from Bach’s pen is perfect. Both had scores for this piece, although I’m not sure why Kennedy did as he didn’t look at a single note. In my view, it’s Kennedy’s ability not simply to present music but somehow personify its very essence that sets him apart from other performers – he absorbs music and then reveals its meaning through his intense expressive playing.

In addition to the scheduled concertos, Kennedy and ECO cellist Dietrich Bethge treated us to arrangements of three two-part keyboard inventions, which allowed a diversion and an opportunity for another member of the Orchestra to display virtuosity. These inventions were aurally entertaining, and one could see the sheer pleasure derived from both performers indulging in such genius.

Kennedy isn’t just about showmanship, what he does is a natural consequence of his deep involvement with the music – the music always comes first. He still has what one might call a schoolboy arrogance, which ironically makes him a popular performer. It isn’t an arrogance of superiority but rather one that challenges the traditions of musical performance, which makes him and his music approachable. Throughout this concert he was good-humoured, greeting the audience as friends and, more importantly, equals. This was a breath-taking concert placing Kennedy among the world’s finest violinists.

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