Nigel Kennedy mines Vivaldi in hunt for another superhit

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The Independent Culture

When a spiky-haired young musician called Nigel Kennedy recorded Vivaldi's Four Seasons in 1989 he created a musical sensation.

It topped the classical charts for a year, made No 3 in the pop top 10 and, with sales of more than two million, was honoured in the Guinness Book of Records as the biggest-selling classical album. The television version won the Golden Rose of Montreux and Kennedy was named the Variety Club's personality of the year, a rare distinction for a classical musician.

But if such a résumé was a reminder that you had always meant to buy a copy, it is too late. The disc has been withdrawn. Fourteen years after Kennedy made Vivaldi as popular as chart toppers of the time, such as the Happy Mondays and Sinead O'Connor, he has returned to the composer with whom he won international fame.

On 27 October, the 46-year-old violinist will release a new version of the Four Seasons. It has been recorded not with his earlier collaborators, the English Chamber Orchestra, though he describes them still as a "fantastic national asset", but with members of the Berlin Philharmonic.

And, perhaps more significantly, he will release at least three if not more albums of Vivaldi concertos in the next few years. He has combed through 500 scores, found 150 he regards as good and perhaps 60 that are great. After performing them with the Berlin Philharmonic, he wanted to record them.

"This whole album is like the beginnings of an exploration of Vivaldi," he said. "To start a project like that recording a couple of concertos and also the Four Seasons on the first album makes more sense than to start with six or seven totally unknown concertos." For Kennedy, the appeal is not just of examining a body of music in detail but of reaching a deeper working partnership with the Berlin Philharmonic. "To stay with the same composer means our understanding can only get greater and greater, not just of the composer but of each other."

The venture was launched this week in Germany in typical Kennedy style, with a packed concert in the home of the Berlin Philharmonic where he played for more than two and a half hours, with an encore involving a football kickabout and a classical rendering of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze".

A tour to Australia, Japan, New Zealand and Taiwan follows and he arrives in the UK next year.

But the project is not without risks. Barry McCann, the managing director of EMI Classics who was marketing director at the time of the first Four Seasons, said: "It's extremely unlikely it will do as well as the first. I don't think you can have lightning strike twice."

Officially, Mr McCann expects it will go gold - selling 100,000. But that may be on the conservative side. And when the disc was presented to EMI Classics' pop colleagues, they called it a "no-brainer". So now it will be down to the fans.

The original album divided critics, because Kennedy, then 33, incorporated his own unscored embellishments, which upset some purists.

Mr McGann said the thing that shocked everyone about the first recording was the speed. "Now what's happened is instead of Nigel leading the pack, they all play together. It is fast but it is so relaxed. It's got a maturity."

The Vivaldi series is likely to keep Kennedy busy for years but on the distant horizon is an even bigger project - about Bach.