Nigel Kennedy: Elgar Concerto, Royal Festival Hall, London
The return of Nigel Kennedy has been thoroughly publicised. The new "Nige" has been analysed in broadsheets and tabloids, in glossy magazines and serious musical journals. But judging from Wednesday's appearance in the Royal Festival Hall, the essence is unchanged. Kennedy remains an outstanding violinist, technically brilliant, and with a gift for making audiences listen hard.

Yes, the appearance was slightly wacky: New Age haircut and spotty waistcoats. But his behaviour on the platform was impeccable, respectful to the music, his audience, and his fellow musicians. And his performance of Elgar's Violin Concerto was as gripping, moving and intelligent as any I can remember in the concert hall.

Cynical critics would have been disappointed. There was nothing weird or wilful about Kennedy's interpreting. This was one occasion when I was glad I had the score to hand. The ear might be caught by something unusual - a sudden fortissimo in a rapt quiet passage, a big tempo change in the middle of a phrase. But time and again this turned out to be exactly what Elgar had specified (and he can be very specific).

The Elgar Concerto has been a Kennedy speciality for most of his career, yet all the evidence suggested that he had gone back to the music afresh, taking nothing for granted. The result was a performance in which almost every detail spoke with personal conviction, but which also made sense as a grand, symphonic whole.

The finale's accompanied cadenza was a wonderful, timeless soliloquy; everything seemed to stand still as the violin revealed Elgar's most private thoughts. But then came the coda: resolute, virtuoso action, allegro molto - and again the music was filled with purpose. The end was triumph - not triumphalism - and thoroughly well-carried.

It wasn't all Kennedy's show. The London Philharmonic Orchestra supported and responded to the solo line like chamber musicians - though with thrillingly full sonority.

And Kennedy's partnership with the conductor Roger Norrington was especially effective. They appeared to be of one mind on so many aspects of this rich score. The applause from Norrington and the orchestra at the end, and Kennedy's brief speech of thanks, all seemed absolutely genuine.

A satisfying experience all round.

If Roger Norrington's interpretation of Vaughan William's apocalyptic Sixth Sympathy isn't fully rounded yet, it is well on its way. One or two of the gear-changes in the first movement sounded slightly awkward. But the climax of the second movement was devastating. The finale, pianissimo throughout, is terribly difficult to bring off in concert, but the silence in the packed auditorium showed how effectively it wove its spell, especially in the closing pages.

The English are still unforgivably modest - or incurious - about some of their finest works. Here is a symphony which, frankly, rivals Shostakovich in its expressiveness and power, and yet it is still relatively rare in concert.

With advocates like Roger Norrington, that may change.

Comments