CLASSICAL MUSIC: Nice one, Nige

After five years away, Nigel Kennedy is back, fusing Bartok with Hendrix. He's clearly lost none of his irreverence, but is he still a mean fiddler?
Click to follow
Bach, Bartok and Hendrix Royal Festival Hall, London

Germany saw it first, then Cheltenham last weekend and, on Thursday night, it was London's turn to savour the latest Nigel Kennedy phenomenon: a Hendrix Concerto in Suite Form. "Structures, not strictures" announced the promotional flyer and, true to form, this was no ordinary "classical gig". Purple "spots" softened the stage and the allsorts audience set up a crescendo of chatter before lights dimmed and a God-Save-the-Queen tune-up signalled Kennedy's imminent entrance. You should have heard the applause: it was tumultuous. And while the rest of the band sat among the shadows, Kennedy took centre-stage and launched straight into the opening "Tempo di Ciaccona" from Bartok's sinewy unaccompanied Violin Sonata, passionately, emphatically (he'd stamp the boards at virtually every bar) and with plenty of tenderness for contrast. The "Fuga" that followed was equally vehement, though, again, there was sensitivity to spare. This was the Kennedy of old, shy but unstinting, personable yet wholly consumed by the score at hand.

Bartok's fugue is traditionally followed by a soulful "Melodia" and, having been primed for "structures not strictures" (my italics), that was what I expected. But, no, Kennedy's scheme was to fracture Bartok's structure at the centre and use some of his Hendrix Concerto as filling. Or perhaps the idea was to offer a little light relief, this not being your regular chamber-music audience - and let's face it, Bartok's solo Sonata is a pretty tough nut to crack. So, Kennedy stood back, blended among a string quartet, double-bass and guitar, then swung into "3rd Stone from the Sun", a sort of free-wheeling ramble on Deep River. Smiles of recognition registered all around: everyone knew the Hendrix original. Not me, though - I could only treat the score as "variations on a theme".

Kennedy's solo work was mostly agile and loose-wristed and the "Little Wing" that followed summoned much hectic trilling and chirruping, vaguely familiar though hardly a visceral match for Hendrix's raucously disruptive soundworld. I'll assume that the mobile phone that rang from somewhere in the stalls wasn't a protest "from the other side". The switch from Hendrix back to Bartok was both bizarre and ineffectual: I felt as if I'd returned to my CD player after having spent a spell in the kitchen with the tranny on. Again, Kennedy played beautifully and the audience was intensely attentive. Of course, they could have swallowed the work whole, just as, beyond the interval, they sat spellbound by a forthright, stylistically romantic and technically assured account of Bach's "Chaconne". More Hendrix dominated the second half, time-wise at least, with a purple light-beam posed for "Purple Haze". As Kennedy turned on the heat, a nearby party of senior citizens shuffled shyly to the nearest exit - which was a shame, because, had they stayed, they could have enjoyed an impromptu appearance by the one-time pop star Donovan, posited in lieu of an encore and as harmlessly off-the-wall as Kennedy's Hendrix Concerto. My own preference would have been for the ferocious rhythms of Bartok's Fourth String Quartet or the teeth-baring Devil in Stravinsky's Soldier's Tale. Hendrix remembered smacks too much of nostalgic cross-over; but then, who could deny that Nigel Kennedy, like the rest of us, is finally getting old?

Comments