The last time Nigel Kennedy appeared at the Proms, his now legendary recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was still two years away. Now back for a double bill of concerts, the hair may have been greyer, the wrinkles slightly more visible, but the cheeky chappy persona and sheer quality of playing that propelled him to stardom in the first place were as much in evidence as ever.
The first Prom, however, was not confined solely to Nigel. Under the baton of Paul Daniel a late stand-in the BBC Concert Orchestra played music by British composers, beginning with Arnold Bax’s The Garden of Fand. Depicting the island of Fand and the surrounding sea, there was a wonderful haunting quality to the lower strings’ echoing of the flutes’ opening. The ‘dancing and feasting’ passage, however, felt comparatively two-dimensional. Whereas the mysterious passages could allude to so much, the orchestra seemed at a loss to know where to go with just plain joyful.
Another Kennedy (Andrew) was the tenor soloist for Finzi’s Intimations of Immortality. Here the BBC Symphony Chorus were appropriately overbearing where they needed to be, without sounding excessively harsh. In contrast, however, Kennedy’s voice lacked the necessary lightness of touch for the music. It seemed too forceful in tone, though not, surprisingly, in volume, and some of his singing was inaudible over the chorus. Nevertheless, he came into his own on occasions, thus ensuring that this piece was still a joy to hear.
And then came the man himself. Entering in surely the longest, shiniest jacket ever to grace a Proms stage, in Elgar’s Violin Concerto Kennedy proved he knew when to apply his own style to the proceedings and when to be subservient to the music. His interpretation was highly sensitive towards Elgar’s original intentions, without being mechanical or lacklustre. There was still the sense that he was leaving his mark on the piece, and indeed the final movement saw him stamping as he played.
The Nigel Kennedy Quintet then led the late night Prom, which included music from their new recording, A Very Nice Album, that features pieces by Kennedy. With an atmosphere buzzing from the outset, the quintet took the audience through easy listening, jazz, blues, and all with Kennedy’s own brand of humour. Highlights included Donovan, in which the pure soaring sound of the violin then gave way to thicker tones from the group, and Nice Bottle of Beaujolais, Innit? which saw a cycle of notes up and down a scale played repeatedly. Another high point was Cloud which, composed on a dull day in the mountains, possessed the type of spiritual energy that I normally associate with El Greco paintings.
The concert had its weaker moments, however. I don’t think I was the only person unable to understand what Aston Villa (which is Kennedy’s favourite team) was saying. The improvisation was superb, but to the unenlightened it seemed totally devoid of meaning. Kennedy’s puerile singing of the blues was another low point. When his banter was otherwise so perfectly pitched, it was then disappointing to see him descend into such silliness.
Nevertheless, with two distinguished guest stars The Yardbirds’ guitarist, Jeff Beck, and singer, Xantone Blacq the highs far outweighed the lows. Indeed, the encore may have been Jimi Hendrix’s Third Stone from the Sun, but it wasn’t enough to bring me back down to earth.
Highlights of Proms 2 and 3 will be broadcast on BBC 2, Saturday, 26 July 2008, 18.45-20.30.