Music and radio on television
Friday 20 February 1998
Old images of Kennedy took a knock as he sat there eloquently talking about Bach and Bartok. He has the teacher's gift of showing what he feels as he discusses the detail. Melvyn Bragg sat there bemused. That left Kennedy free to say what he wanted, and meant that, for once, he could explain what his obsession with Hendrix is really about.
Maybe it started with wishing he was a rock star but it has moved on. He does something different from trying to re-create the heavy-guitar ambience in an inappropriate medium. Really these are Kennedy's own pieces. They use the original musical line just as the springboard for idiomatic, personal and often beautiful elaborations.
This stance seemed all of a piece with the urges that made him give up conventional performances five years ago. Bragg didn't test what he now has to say about "not playing dead composers". Yet Kennedy has just gone through a unique period of exploring his own ideas. The programme missed its chance to go into the nature of improvising and musicians' increasing awareness of its role. Instead, it boxed him back into the tradition he came from. Maybe nobody knew how to ask.
Elgar's Third Symphony rightly dominated Radio 3. Everybody knows how well the symphony lived up to expectations. So did the build-up and context by the organisation that, after all, commissioned it in the first place. Listening to the premiere on radio inevitably produced a more reflective response. Disconcertingly, I found myself reacting to Anthony Payne's completion the way that Elgar's publisher Jaeger did to the first version of the Enigma Variations - wonderful, and it ends too soon. All Elgar's long symphonic works tie their threads together in an expansive epilogue. Payne has come up with a final twist which itself creates a greater need for resolution than the elliptical concluding cross-references. Imagine, after it, a reflective opening-up as in the Cello Concerto. Has he, yet, dared all?
The symphony is sure to become the most-played English work of the late 20th century - and it has to count as that because Payne's involvement is so vital. It is a defining moment in contemporary creativity. It also echoes what Kennedy's stance implies, that a whole tradition has gently wound to a close and the most vigorous new activity is either focused on earlier times, or adding footnotes. Otherwise the creative muse has simply moved to other kinds of music. What will happen to Payne's musical spirit when it has fully absorbed the experience of identifying with Elgar? How easily can he go back to what he was doing before?
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