Classical review: Playing it straight

Nigel Kennedy Barbican Hall, London
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You could say that Nigel Kennedy dressed down for his evening with the English Chamber Orchestra on Tuesday. There's nothing wrong with that, but his jokey little addresses to the audience fell flat. Beecham used to do that sort of thing with style. Kennedy is unsure of his, but there was nothing uncertain about his playing, and he undertook a massive programme. After a rather underwhelming reading of Beethoven's Coriolan overture under the ECO's young associate conductor Shuntaro Sato, Kennedy took over as soloist and director in Bach's A minor Violin Concerto. It was certainly a disciplined performance, on the brisk side, and the central Andante, for which Kennedy set the pulse as if he were churning concrete, emerged austere and with a minimum of vibrato. The finale was a bit jumpy, though Kennedy's habit of shuffling his feet about in time to the music emphasised the effect.

His manner was very much that of a chamber musician, sharing with rather than dominating his colleagues, and in Bach's Double Concerto he was well matched by the young violinist Katharine Gowers. While Kennedy offered his profile to the audience, so that he had rapport with the orchestra, Gowers played more to the front, as if liberated by her partner, though she would slip him a smile now and then as they exchanged phrases. Again, the first movement was brisk, even brusque, and rounded off with scarcely a hint of the conventional but unnecessary rallentando. The slow movement went at none too yielding a tempo - more Andante than Largo - though its eloquence could hardly be suppressed and, for once, it was played so cleanly and alertly, the lack of gush seemed a tonic.

There's no doubt that Kennedy is on very fine form. Still, sometimes the ear wants to be wooed. In the slow movement of the Beethoven Concerto, his ascetic purity began to seem uneventful, his very straight tone like a static object you want to wobble, just to know it's there. The orchestra must love him, because he turned his back to the audience when dialoguing with the wind instruments, and had a great time switching side to side between cellos and violins in the finale. He had played the popular Kreisler cadenza in the first movement - and brilliantly - but here elaborated some mildly weird concoction of his own, while the cellos and basses plucked an extended pedal point with the air of conspirators. After more than enough first-class playing for one night, I skipped the jokes at the end.

Adrian Jack

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