CLASSICAL: Nigel Kennedy CBSO/Simon Rattle Symphony Hall, Birmingham

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The Independent Culture
EMI's Centenary Gala Concert at Birmingham's Symphony Hall was framed either end by the music of Sir William Walton, with the rousing Anniversary Fanfare (commissioned for EMI's 75th Anniversary Concert) placed first and the most viscerally thrilling account imaginable of Belshazzar's Feast to close. Sir Simon Rattle conducted, and I doubt that anyone present had ever heard the more extrovert passages in Belshazzar (and there are many of them) sung with such burning intensity. When the choruses announced that the King was slain, the word "slain" was declaimed with such force that palpable shock-waves swept through the audience. The combined choruses of the Cleveland Orchestra and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were joined by baritone Simon Keenlyside, and if the projected EMI CD of the event reproduces it with anything like accurate fidelity, then make sure to protect your speaker cones.

The concert opened with Mark-Anthony Turnage's Four-Horned Fandango, a sort of near-relation of Ravel's La Valse. The work opens among a plethora of reptilian string slides, with sinewy horn writing and much telling counterpoint. The real action starts among the lower strings, and thereafter, keyboards, strings and sundry gongs (a whole mass of them) create a sensual soundstage. Once reached and exhausted, the fandango itself subsides and the work ends, as it began, in a mood of mystery.

Audience response to the Turnage was more respectful than ecstatic, though the composer's appearance on stage prompted an extra burst of applause. Nigel Kennedy, on the other hand, inspired a pre-performance ovation. True to form, he shared a few light-hearted thoughts with us, then launched into an unscheduled "warm-up" account of the Prelude from Bach's Third Partita for unaccompanied violin. However, for most of us, Elgar's Violin Concerto served as the evening's musical "main course" and Kennedy's performance, although far from note-perfect, had a reckless, risk-taking quality that was quite exhilarating. His famous studio recording of the work was conceived - interpretatively speaking - more or less "by the book", but Saturday's concert performance was brazenly unconventional. Rattle's handling of the opening tutti was both strong and assertive, with loving reportage of the second subject (particularly from the cellos) and impulsive gear changes. And although Kennedy eschewed some of the swooning slides that he had favoured years ago, his playing had gained in urgency, most noticeably in fast, double-stopped passages, which - in terms of speed - sometimes outstripped even Heifetz.

I was occasionally reminded of the great Albert Sammons, very occasionally of Menuhin, but more often than not the combination of Kennedy's hot-headed exuberance and Rattle's excitable conducting left an indelible mark on a score that, in the recent past at least, has fallen prey to some relatively tame interpretations. Rattle's previous Symphony Hall collaboration in the work, with Gidon Kremer, was ineffectual by comparison. If I had one reservation, it concerned the second movement, where Kennedy seemed to be pushing forwards and Rattle pulling back -although there were some breathtaking pianissimos among the violins. The ghostly accompanied cadenza that dominates the third movement cadenza was superbly sustained and the closing pages, refreshingly lean. The audience went wild; more Bach followed (a beautiful reading of the first movement from the Third unaccompanied Sonata), and Belshazzar concluded the celebration.