Nigel KENNEDY (b.1956)
The Four Elements (2011)

Overture [8:56]
Air [11:12]
Earth [5:22]
Fire [7:09]
Water [6:19]
Finale [18:10]
Encore [2:25]
Nigel Kennedy (violin)
Members of the Orchestra of Life
rec. March-April 2011, Hook End Manor, Checkondon

SONY CLASSICAL 88697927152 [59:41]

I think there’s a time I might have loved this and played it to death, so maybe this is living proof that appreciation of certain types of music is age-related. I would hate to think I’ve become a crusty old Scrooge of a reviewer, but if you are interested in what Nigel Kennedy is up to these days then we have to agree that the only reason The Four Elements is appearing on this side of the classical/jazz-rock-pop divide is that it has been released on Sony Classical. This positioning of such a release in the classical division of the market seems designed to invite controversy, as does Kennedy’s eternal desire to shake us all out of our dusty sleep with his genre-expanding multi-faceted artistic road-show. This title harks back to Kennedy’s big 1989 EMI hit recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons which divided opinion more than somewhat, as will this new release. The Four Elements was originally conceived as a 21st century response to Vivaldi. The scale and ambition of this project reminds me a bit of 1970s concept albums like Camel’s The Snow Goose and any number of ‘pomp-rock’ extravaganzas by bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer, so there’s plenty of ‘retro-now’ pushing and pulling to get one’s teeth into here.

Kennedy has been working in Poland with some excellent jazz musicians, and names from previous releases such as Shhh! also appear in The Four Elements. There is plenty of skilful playing here from innumerable band members, and Kennedy’s electric violin is capable of both hard-rock distortion effects and beautifully reflective moments such as his solo around six minutes into Air. Eastern atmospheres crop up here and there, standing in for the pastoral effects of The Four Seasons, but as with the opening of the Overture they are perhaps presented a little coyly, too soon taken over with drum-beats rather than being allowed to develop organically. Heavy beats are the flavour of Earth, not quite reaching the same level of something like Peter Gabriel’s Digging in the Dirt, but expressing kinship in terms of dualities of meaning. Not printed in the lyrics, Nigel’s light-hearted mid-section, “the earth is a magical space, made specifically for the human race ...” contradicts the central message of Earth being the “mother of all and the source of every birth”, whose “creatures great and small are all of equal worth.” In other words, dig too deep and you’ll release a can of arrogant worms. The rock feel is continued in Fire, which takes its up-tempo lead from the Brown/Bruce/Clapton number “Sunshine of Your Love”, and is great fun further on, with some Nymanesque progressions to keep our content-hungry brains happy. The mixture of strings with rock beats does tend to kick up a retro-disco feel with this track, but Kennedy’s vocals are a greater distraction. As with most of the numbers here, Fire is a few minutes too long for its own good, but you can dry your hair of a morning and spend the rest of the day with a stiff neck after head-banging your way through breakfast. Nigel’s bleeped studio out-take expletives at the conclusion are unamusing, but all part of the naughty-boy ethos.

Water is a more gently moving number with some nice instrumental textures and strangely compelling vocal arrangements. The Finale is largely filled with wistful improvisatory noodling but teases with harder hitting material, almost breaking out into a carnival march or an anthem but remaining in a state of permanent relapse and unrestricted jumping from one genre to the next until we at long last reach the half-tempo anthem bit 14 minutes in, and even this has to become a barn dance before we’re finally allowed to escape.

The final Plucking Elemental - Encore is pretty embarrassing, Nigel’s gravelly vocal taking us back to the world of a kind of sub “the spirit of Alexei Sayle possesses Neil in The Young Ones in an attempt to recreate something like The Beatles’ Her Majesty and somewhat self-consciously deflating the overblown pretension of the previous track but tripping itself up by being over-produced”, kind of thing.

This is what one might term a ‘Marmite’ release – the chances are you’ll either love it or hate it, with not much room for in-between opinions. If you have an aversion to pop music it’s probably best avoided, though as a ‘pop’ album it is very many times better than much of the dross we are fed from that corner of the market. The Four Seasons is a fascinating prospect, and – alas – a missed opportunity. What it really needed was a composer/producer willing to stand up to Nigel Kennedy’s artistically self-extirpative instincts, and able to develop the strong material and bin the weak. There are good things on this album, but none of them are really allowed to flourish. Transitional material lingers too long, with those repetitious building-blocks too banal to create Hey Jude-esque staying power. As a response to Vivaldi it makes little or no use of his material as an inspiration, and I would have loved some of the frisson you can find with those antique/modern juxtapositions that this kind of treatment can bring about. I may be overly harsh, but even with the good bits of the mixed blessing to provide encouragement there is just too much faffing about to give this album the kind of classic status to which it seems to aspire. This could have been a memorable and monumental achievement, but unfortunately we’re left not with Four Elements but Four Elephants: our view not of the fascinating flapping of their unforgettable ears, but the steaming produce of their lumbering rears.

Dominy Clements

Four Elephants.