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Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Violin Concerto in B minor, Op. 61 (1909-1910) [52:49]
Introduction and Allegro for string quartet and string orchestra, Op. 47 (1904-1905) [14:39]
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley
rec. Watford Town Hall, 30-31 January 1983 (intro); 21-22 March 1984 (concerto)



Handley’s is an involving and thoughtful Introduction and Allegro in which the string quartet are Peter Manning and Russell Gilbert (violins), Rusen Gunes (viola) and Alexander Cameron (cello). It is very romantic indeed though without the flammability of the classic Barbirolli-Sinfonia of London version, also in the GROC series. This Handley reading is graciously recorded with a superb recreation of space and left-right separation yet retaining that feeling of articulation across the span of the soundstage. 

Nigel Kennedy was born in 1956 and studied at the Juilliard with Dorothy Delay at Yehudi Menuhin’s expense. His debut came in 1977 at an LPO concert. His jazz-rock appearance and concert involvement has set him apart from the conventional classical world. In 1998 he indicated that he wished to be known simply as ‘Kennedy’.

Kennedy’s Elgar Violin Concerto has been top-ranked, five starred and laden with praise since it was first issued. It has attained gold disc status, was voted 1985 Record of the Year by Gramophone and was awarded Best Classical Album of the Year at the BPI. It has sold in excess of 300,000 units. All the stars are aligned for a merited place in the GROC series and so it turns out. 

What are its strengths? For a start it has one of the most experienced of British music conductors in the business in the shape of Adrian Boult protégé Vernon Handley. It’s a while since I have heard this version so Handley surprised me by the impetuous pace he set at the start of the concerto although later things become slower, more reflective and luxuriantly self-regarding. In its speed it reminded me at first of Sargent's famous and still remarkably exciting and moving recording with Jascha Heifetz. But as we can hear, within three minutes of the start of the middle movement, Handley is also happy to turn in a deeply touching account of the score’s many tender moments. Along with the Walton it’s one of the few Heifetz recordings I consistently praise.  As for Kennedy he is a magnificent soloist who plays with fire and quicksilver, romantic yield and scintillating attack. It is all very smooth and his concentration and pellucid purity of tone have to be heard to be believed. The amber steady slow-motion of that finale and the fragile silence – you can sometimes catch the distant rumble of traffic – coupled with Kennedy’s magically clean note-production makes for mesmerising listening. I caught myself several times thinking that the orchestra were listening to Kennedy almost as closely as Kennedy was listening to Kennedy. The whole effect is rapt, solipsistic – very special. Kennedy and Handley deliver the fireworks for the last few minutes of the concerto but the signature of this performance is introspective – almost self-absorbed.

I checked the Naxos version of the Heifetz recording and see that the total playing time is 41:28. Heifetz is very quick, it is true, but Kennedy takes a towering 52:49 as compared with 42:39 for Haendel with Pritchard on BBC Radio Classics 15656 91942 and Accardo’s 46:13 on Regis and Campoli’s 45:26 on Beulah 1 PD10.

This 1984 Kennedy version of the Concerto was last available on Classics for Pleasure CFPD 75139 previously EMI EMX2058 but it has not been out of the catalogue since it was first issued at full price. There is of course the Kennedy remake EMI Classics CDC5 56413-2 of the Elgar with Rattle conducting his CBSO in 1997. That version also includes the Vaughan Williams Lark Ascending. I have not heard it so cannot compare. It would be good to have other listener’s reactions.

The notes are by Andrew Achenbach.

A generous and well-matched coupling when you consider that the Kennedy version of the Concerto has often been issued by itself. It stands at the opposite pole to Heifetz/Sargent which remains my admittedly idiosyncratic recommendation.

Rob Barnett





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