Academic Festival Overture, Op.80
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Violin Concerto in D, Op.77
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 12 June, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Brahms’s student-song Overture took a while to settle, Andrew Litton delivering a mix of over-deliberation and over-ebullience. The twain didn’t meet on the way to a coda just a little bombastic. Elgar’s inexhaustible Variations was better played, Litton laudably unexaggerated in approach if rather too ceremonial in ‘Nimrod’. The stuttering of ‘Dorabella’ was delicately traced and Michael Whight offered some genuinely quiet clarinet-playing in ‘***’ (which supposedly quotes from Mendelssohn but it could just be Schumann’s Piano Concerto). Otherwise, for all the honesty of the performance it was short of character – rather a drawback in music centred on portraying the composer’s friends. We had the (ad lib) organ at the end, just a little loud in relation to the strings and less-embedded into the texture than ideal. The RPO fielded only six double bassists – in this music, in this hall, it was not enough.
Once past the inanities of his actions on arrival, and his down-and-out appearance, Nigel Kennedy did what he does best: play the violin. He wasn’t at his finest though (his solo Bach at last year’s BBC Proms was sublime and leaves a long legacy). No doubting his passion for Brahms’s music, although his jumping around and thumping the floor would be better avoided. For all his commitment some of his attack was unkempt: notes lost or snatched, some pitching veering sharp or flat, and inconsistencies of tone, not least at the top, sometimes sour. Kennedy’s own first-movement cadenza (maybe with a bit of help from Fritz Kreisler: difficult to tell from the soloist’s provocative programme note) was a wayward mix of Paganini, Hebrew melody and sci-fi soundtrack (the orchestra joining in), sidetracking Brahms for five minutes – you dropped a stylistic clanger there, mate – and the slow movement was made an indulged trudge (honours though for John Anderson’s opening oboe solo; somehow he kept going in good shape). Elsewhere, Kennedy offered a fire that was compelling and a tenderness that was beguiling. Litton stuck with him, now and then dutifully beating time so as to merely stay together. Still, there’s no doubting Kennedy is a magician. He was given a standing ovation. Although such things are these days a meaningless ritual, he seems to have convinced some in the audience that they witnessed a better performance than was the case.
For his first encore Kennedy pounced on cellist David Cohen for Johan Halvorsen’s Passacaglia (after Handel), originally for violin and viola if made famous decades ago by Heifetz and cellist Piatigorsky. Kennedy and Cohen gave a knockabout rendition with a spot of stand-up! Not exactly Morecambe & Wise.