BBC Proms reviews

Prom 31: Nigel Kennedy @ Royal Albert Hall, London

6 August 2011

Royal Albert Hall

Royal Albert Hall (Photo: Andy Paradise/Royal Albert Hall)

The programme said that this late night prom was 40 minutes of Bach followed by seven minutes of jazz, but in fact the jazz seemed to be the main event as the encores of Fats Waller just kept rolling, far eclipsing the time spent with J.S.B. That would be unbearably annoying if you wouldnt listen to weeks of jazz to get to ten minutes of Bach played like this.

I last saw Nigel Kennedy play solo Bach eleven years ago in Liverpool, and his buoyant, gypsy-like playing has stuck in my mind ever since. I absolutely love the way he plays. But of course he does a lot more that just play he tries to engage the audience on a personal level, completely wrong-footing the renowned stiffness of classical audiences and their entrenched expectations of proper stage-behaviour. He comes into the Albert Hall and the banter starts immediately full of desperately affected idioms, a wilfully fake accent, and deliberate mispronunciation of classical terms (so as not to appear overeducated or precious about High Art). All very embarrassing but by some miracle he pulls it off. Hes charming, genuine, and relaxed. And then he starts to play Bach.

Far from being a nit-picking perfectionist or a pristine virtuoso, Kennedy plays from the guts. On the set list (as Kennedy probably calls it) was the most phenomenal piece yet written for solo violin Bachs Partita 2, including the massive, labyrinthine Chaconne. The performance was intensely emotional, and as gripping as the best murder mystery and told with the slow unfolding drama of an ancient saga. This piece is a monumental test for listeners and performer Kennedy mockingly warned the audience this is a killer for concentration, so good luck, such a brilliant thing to say to remind those passive listeners of classical music that if they dont follow the narrative of the notes then they are not listening at all. The most exhilarating moment came just after the 3rd movement when Kennedy paused for a fraction of a second, weighing up the decision to re-tune his violin before the colossal final movement and risk ruining the momentum of the piece, or just plough on? In the next instant he seemed to say to himself fuck it and what followed was the most brazen, beautiful, fearless performance Ive ever heard, full of grit, daring and honesty.

There were no eccentricities of interpretation, no weird tempo choices, wayward staccato or pretentious portamento effects just a man playing superbly. If he does occasionally stamp or shuffle his feet, this isnt to remind you that he has a personality (like Glenn Gould was so fond of doing), its more like the noises that dogs make when theyre dreaming- unconscious and strangely lovable.

A truly thrilling ride, nerve-wracking and joyous and musical. Then there was some very nice jazz played by Kennedys small ensemble. Luckily there was no electric violin.

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