Nigel Kennedy: Bach + Fats Waller, Royal Festival Hall, London


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The Independent Culture

On stage burn two sweetly old-fashioned candelabras, but the ceiling sails are lit in stripes of blue and magenta: thus does Nigel Kennedy proclaim his twin geographical allegiances, Poland and Aston Villa.

Air-punching his way into the spotlight accompanied by his Polish band, he announces that this show is going to be dedicated to two musicians whose influence he had spent his twenties trying to escape but now wants to express his gratitude to - Yehudi Menuhin and Stephane Grappelli.

Then it’s straight into the ‘Praeludium’ from Bach’s third Partita, drilling the air with impressive tonal accuracy; this evergreen youngster, now 56, seems to get smaller with the years, an effect accentuated by his too-big leather jacket and seemingly shapeless limbs. Point made, he pauses to welcome late-comers (‘you seem to have heard my reputation and taken it seriously’) and to introduce his band, guitarist Karek Smietana, double bass ace Yaron Stavi, and percussionist Krzysztof Dziedzic -  ‘due to the state of the British economy, he will only be playing one drum’, and a small one at that; there’s not an amplifier in sight.

Then Kennedy launches into some modal Celtic mournfulness, with the others giving just the hint of an accompaniment so intimate we might be in a little club in Warsaw.

Then he goes solo again, giving us the Fugue from Bach’s second sonata, and one realises anew what a first-rate musician he is. There is nothing conventional or ingratiating about his genially muscular sound: his Bach is unique to him, and as fine as that of many other top players on the international circuit.

Then comes another Celtic intermission with the spare but expressive guitar in the lead: Kennedy believes that short improvisations can both aerate the sonata and highlight its changing moods. The Allegro is boosted by the band, but so delicately it might be a movement from one of the orchestral suites; the solo Andante attains muted ecstasy.

After the interval it’s swing-time, prefaced by a walkabout in which the arpeggiating fiddler greets friends in the audience - ‘John Etheridge! Lizzie Ball!’ - and blames the British economy for the absence of a piano in his Fats Waller numbers.

The encores come thick and fast, including some casual Hungarian Gypsy virtuosity recalling that of Maxim Vengerov in his first flush, and ending with a hushed ‘Danny Boy’ for the victims at Hillsborough.