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Max BRUCH (1838-1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor, Op. 26 (1864-68) [25:11]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Rondo in A for violin and strings D438 [16:02]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1844) [29:12]
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
English Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate
rec. No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London, 19-20 December 1987.
EMI CLASSICS 5181732 [70:35]
Experience Classicsonline

When I worked for a short while in the CD department of a large department store in The Hague, there was an assistant who had long thought that Mendelssohn-Bruch was a single composer and that ‘The Mendelssohn-Bruch’ but a single grand masterpiece; such is the frequency with which this coupling has appeared over the years.
This disc is the ‘Gramophone/Penguin Guide Recommends’ re-issue of Nigel Kennedy’s now ‘classic’ recordings of these pieces, but fans beware, this entire programme has also appeared as part of Kennedy’s Platinum Collection. It is however a good thing that we have this now vintage recording available at around half the price of the original.
Much has been said about these performances, and to sum up, you are either bowled over by Nigel Kennedy and can’t get enough of them, or you can’t stand the thing and won’t have it in the house, even for use as a silver non-absorbent beer mat. I can rarely sum up the energy to be passionate or partisan one way or another about individual performers, so whatever Nigel Kennedy’s prowess and pretentions before and since these recordings are water off this fellow performing duck’s happily unbiased back.
To put the thing in context, Kennedy would have been a bit over thirty, and had long made it as a professional soloist by the time he made these recordings, so no excuses can be made for lack of experience or the brashness of youth if we’re going to be critical. This was also just before he was let loose on his notorious first version of the ‘Four Seasons’. Listening to these recordings again after the excitement of their release about twenty years ago and I can’t help feeling there is just ‘too much’ in the solo. I’m quite happy to hear butch violin playing, and would prefer it to wafting and perfumed romanticism. The Bruch solo part does however receive quite a punishing, which no doubt reflects a soloist’s need to project above a big but largely sympathetic orchestra. As has been mentioned by others, Kennedy wrings every drop out of each note – the only question is, what is it that is wrung? Scanning my shelves, I picked out the almost contemporaneous DGG recording by Gil Shaham and Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra. Shaham is by no means feminine in his playing, but where Kennedy often seems to be popping all cylinders at once, Shaham somehow creates a wider scale and range of emotions by keeping, or giving the impression of keeping just that little bit more in reserve. He also lifts the orchestra where the score demands, rather than constantly rising above it, so that the performance becomes more of an organic whole, rather than something of a battle ground. Don’t get me wrong, the Kennedy/Tate combination is very good, and very exciting, but it doesn’t ‘get me’ in the same way, I’m impressed, but not so moved.
Looking at the Mendelssohn, and the picture is similar. Kennedy has us on the edge of our seats an gritting our teeth virtually from the start, which is a good thing if you’re writing a novel – ‘start with an avalanche and go on from there’, but in a piece of music like this I would suggest that the impression might better be given that there are greater climaxes to be had later on, that there is more and better to look forward to, rather than pushing the whole pie into the public’s face within the first 20 seconds or so. Pinchas Zukerman does this very well in his 1983 Philips recording with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, arching over the opening exposition with expansive ease, drawing us into the longer narrative rather more elegantly. Kennedy does settle down well into the gentler sections of this first movement however, and his technical prowess in the most demanding passages is a wonder to behold.
The version of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor Op.64 that we usually hear today differs in some details to the original version the composer made in 1844 , and I would direct collectors to a wonderful recording and performance in the BIS label with Isabelle van Keulen and the Nieuw Sinfonietta Amsterdam under Lev Markiz to what amounts to an ‘authentic’ performance of the original version of this marvellous work. Both van Keulen and Zukerman seem to reach the heart of the music more attractively than Kennedy. This is something hard to define, and I’m usually reluctant to use words like ‘heart’ and ‘soul’, but with these alternatives, and with Gil Shaham for that matter, I couldn’t go back to Kennedy and sincerely say that he was giving me more of the music than these other soloists. Nigel Kennedy’s is a sincere and honest performance, and I’d be that last to accuse him of showmanship over musical communication, but by the end I was becoming a bit fed up with the whole thing. Those little upward flicks at the beginning of the final Allegro molto vivace should be witty, I want them to make me smile – giving the kick-start to the fun bit in the last furlong. Kennedy doesn’t make me smile there, but does at 2:51 where that little flick at the interval of an 11th is a joy. In other words, technical wonders, power and excitement galore, but I’m less drawn into the music than into a critical evaluation of the playing, which is part of the reason for being here in the first place of course, but ultimately the very thing you want in the end to be able to let go of, just allowing the music to take you on that special journey.
Having Schubert’s Rondo D438 between the two main concertos is an excellent idea: like Victor Borge’s third pedal on the piano, it stops them bumping into each other. In this piece Kennedy is not obliged to be intense or expressive in quite that same romantic front-foot concerto manner, so this in many ways turns out to be the most appealing recording on this disc. The playing is light and yes, witty in places, and the piece certainly deserves its orchestral version, having originally been scored for violin and string quartet.
My own conclusions on this re-release? It most certainly is worth its now much reduced asking price, but the world has moved on since 1988 and I would suggest that if you already possess loved and well-worn versions of these works, then this much vaunted recording is possibly less likely to blow them out of the water than the critics might have you believe. Kennedy most certainly does have special qualities, but to my ears these are more in the bravura technical achievement in the playing rather than in revealing the essentials of the music. If you miss and long for the brave, brash, ‘Cool Britannia’ late 1980s then this may do it for you, but I personally won’t be making this recording my all-time first choice. If however you’ve had your eye on this recording for ages but were reluctant to shell out the shekels at full price, now is the time and here is the low-budget solution to your problem. At least you can hear what all the fuss was about for yourself, and not feel too bad if it ultimately ends up in mother-in-law’s Christmas stocking.
Dominy Clements


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