Herb Greer goes to Oxford to hear Nigel Kennedy play Elgar and Beethoven with a student rchestra. As long as he plays like this, we can forgive him his mannered eccentricityby Herb Greer / July 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Some years ago in a Radio 3 lecture, the British composer Thea Musgrave paused in full flight. “There is one thing you must remember,” she said, “music is chaps doing things.”
Sitting in the Sheldonian Hall at Oxford last month, I had cause to reflect on this. The occasion was a concerto concert by Nigel Kennedy, playing the Beethoven D major and the Elgar B minor. Waiting among an expectant crowd, I wondered what Kennedy would pull out of the hat. He was returning to the concert stage after a fallow period, and playing with a student orchestra. Was there an arri?re-pens?e in all this?
Kennedy’s skill has never been in doubt, and the stories about his eccentricity had not concerned me much. Polisson soloists of one kind or another, are nothing new. There was the time when Paganini stopped, ripped three strings off his fiddle, and played the rest of the concert on one string while the audience went wild. Franz Liszt, too, liked to impress the punters with the force of his playing, striking great chords that snapped the specially weakened strings of a piano. When the gasps and applause had subsided, he would swan over to a spare instrument conveniently close by, to continue his recital. Beside these ploys, Kennedy’s brush haircut, his affected “Yeah, like…” barrow boy dialect and those louche costumes are anodyne. Hardly noticeable, really.
I did know from good sources that Kennedy had rehearsed carefully with the orchestra, making sure they gave him exactly what he wanted. From the first moments of the Beethoven a striking effect was evident in their playing. This was not the first time I had heard the Oxford University Chamber orchestra. They are the elite among the several student orchestras at the university, and their playing is normally of an excellent amateur standard. But now they were playing above that level, with a startling clean polish and phrasing. I knew that Kennedy’s working relationship with them was close and friendly on a personal level, but that could have been dangerous. An over-chummy approach can lead to sloppiness below the call of duty. In this case that did not happen. It was clear at once that Kennedy is one of those musicians with the sorcerer’s power of inspiring excellence in lesser performers around him.
After Kennedy’s unscheduled overture-Bach’s prelude to the E major Partita for solo violin-his influence glowed in the orchestral introduction to the Beethoven, to such an extent that something quite extraordinary took place. It is a sad fact about Beethoven’s D major concerto that the first movement is long, very long, and-even when the orchestra is professional and the soloist impeccably comme il faut––it can become a bit tedious. I was braced for this, and waited, and waited, and the tedium did not come. The music flowed generously, with finely shaped nuances and an abundance of light and shade that surely would have pleased old Uncle Ludwig himself. It seemed that I had (almost) never heard the piece before. By the time Kennedy tucked his instrument under his chin, I was wide awake and sitting up straight.
Kennedy’s get-up was almost but not quite conservative: a sort of loose dark outfit with a droopy white waistcoat, polka-dotted in black, showing underneath. And of course the same wheatfield haircut. The second he put bow to string, all of that vanished. Kennedy was not standing before the orchestra, pushing his solo grandly out of the concerto and into the listening audience. Rather, he placed himself slightly to one side of conductor Duncan Hinnells, almost tucked in between first and second violins. As with the position, so with the playing: it was expressed as a seamless whole rather than a showpiece, a close dialogue between violin and orchestra almost in baroque style.
The discreet smooth manner was a slight disability in the last movement, which on the evidence of Beethoven’s score is a little more cocky and forward. In the circumstances this is a minor quibble. What we were hearing was less the grand aural experience of Kennedy the virtuoso than Beethoven the superb composer, speaking freshly through this ensemble and an artist who was performing more as a fluent leader than as a flashy soloist. It was a beautifully integrated performance of the concerto as music, a species of offering which comes seldom even from grander soloists on grander stages. This was the real stuff––music according to Thea Musgrave’s simple wise description.
With the Elgar, discretion is more difficult for the soloist. This is music in the late 19th century style, rich, spectacular and very emotional, displaying the technical show that was crafted for the great Fritz Kreisler-a man completely uninterested in musical self-effacement. Kennedy’s virtuosity flashed out as Elgar meant the solo should, with a cool hard command of the instrument and the music, and a deceptively easy manner. The result was a holistic integrity which is rare in the performance of any concerto, and which kept this long work far from any hint of boredom.
The audience responded with delight, and Kennedy was joined by jazz guitarist John Etheridge for two encores: All the Blues by Miles Davis, spiced in the middle with a touch of Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump, followed by a lovely smooth guitar-fiddle dialogue on Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. Kennedy can wear what he likes and speak as he pleases, as long as he plays like this.n