Nice one, Nigel

He was classical music's wild child, the prodigy who dropped his aitches, acted the prat, scored a monster hit with Vivaldi and laughed all the way to the Malvern Hills on the proceeds. Now he's pushing 40, and out of retirement. Say what you like about Nigel Kennedy (and they've all had a pop at him in the music business), the boy can still play. By Edward Seckerson
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The name of the album is Kafka. And Nigel Kennedy will tell you that it's about change. Big word, change. Presumably that's change as in 'Metamorphosis', Franz Kafka's short story about a young man who goes to bed human and wakes up an insect. Not, perhaps, an altogether wise analogy given the number of musical establishment figures who have lined up to take a swat at Kennedy. But you see what he might be driving at. Attitudes are invariably coloured - in his case redefined - by image.

His long-standing pre-eminence as the artful dodger of classical music, fiddler "by appointment" to the people, for the people, in harmony with the people (and in tempo with the terraces) - has won him fame and fortune but few favours among those for whom classical music is a "respectable" business. The night he did an Alice Cooper on the Alban Berg Violin Concerto, arriving on stage in an ankle-length black velvet dressing gown and white expressionist make-up (persuaded only at the last moment to remove the trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth), is a night that Sir John Drummond (then controller of BBC Radio 3) will never forget. But the hall was packed, and the performance riveting, special. So where was the problem? Not with Kennedy, that's for sure. Nor his fans. Nor his record company, EMI. They went out and did the business. And who could blame them? The most gifted violinist of his generation was a marketing magnet, a genius who behaved like a prat. The chat shows couldn't get enough of him, Vivaldi's Four Seasons was edging into the pop charts. They'd have scheduled Four Seasons II if only the other four had existed. But their boy didn't want to play any more. Not the games, not the music, not anything. Enough. Drop-out. The prodigal prodigy retires.

So what happened? It's been three years since Kennedy took to the Malvern Hills with the proceeds of "Viv's" Seasons, the biggest-selling classical album of all time. Some say he left his classical converts high and dry just when they needed him most. Others sighed a sigh of relief. For them, a rest was as good as a change where Kennedy was concerned. Change - it's that big word again.

Anyone watching TFI Friday - the Chris Evans show - a couple of weeks ago will almost certainly, involuntarily, have experienced a shiver of deja vu. Kennedy entering through the dry ice. A rousing chorus of 'Ere We Go. Predictions for Euro 96, Kennedy providing a little rude underscoring of his own. And Kennedy - the video: "101 loopy things to do with your violin". Isn't this precisely where we left off three years ago? Just like old times?

Just like old times. I've been promised a quiet hour with the man. So it's off through the waiting fans ("Sign my hand, please Nigel"), past the young lady seeking charity donations ("Are you on the level? If not, 'ave a nice meal on me..."), into the chauffeured limo and onwards to - wait for it - the reservoir at Barnes Common, there to chew the cud over a couple of bottles of mineral water. Neither the location nor the beverages quite ring true to form. Who said Kennedy wasn't for real? The truth is he's very much for real. Not the accent, surely? Not the jargon, the familiar terms of endearment - "maestro", "monster", "nice one"? Yes, those too. All right, so the quirkiness of his character has come to border on self-parody - caricature - so he likes "to arse about", be one of the lads, so he has a problem with authority, so (by his own admission) he's irritatingly stubborn, rebellious, wilful, contrary. So he's pushing 40. That stops you in your tracks. How about it, Nige? "I think you grow within yourself even if you never grow up". Now there's one for the psychoanalysts. The childhood he never really had? Perhaps. Kennedy is more of an open book than you may think. Just don't be fooled by the cover. His persona is as much a part of him as the instincts which make him a great player ("Thanks, man, I'll send you a tenner in the post.")

And he is a great player. His extraordinary recording of the Elgar Concerto (one of Gramophone magazine's "Classical Records of the Decade") outreached even his mentor Yehudi Menuhin in presenting a total re-evaluation of the piece. In the Brahms Concerto, Kennedy spun heavenly lengths above and beyond tradition and expectation. The conductor, Klaus Tennstedt (himself a violinist), wholeheartedly adopted him (cadenza and all). And when he came to the Beethoven (again with Tennstedt) he took it completely to heart, made it entirely his own. without ever having to beg our indulgence. The Beethoven will always sift out the great from the good. There is nowhere to hide in that piece.

For Kennedy it was something of a plateau. It was live, it was proud, it was the best, the very best, he could do without finding time to grow a little more. So it was as good a moment as any to get off the merry- go-round, take a deep breath, stand back from his own publicity. "Tory MPs were advancing their careers by saying that I was advocating children taking drugs ... any publicity was good publicity, the power of persuasion was all about power ... I was becoming a marketing formula. I felt like I was losing control. The music was getting left behind".

And the music was, is, what it has always been about. When Kennedy programmes Jimi Hendrix alongside Bach and Bartok, it isn't out of some oikish desire to ingratiate himself with today's youth/pop culture (he's far happier when younger fans tell him that they didn't expect to like the Bach but did, or, vice versa, when classical enthusiasts respond to the Hendrix).

"There are", he says, "intriguing musical parallels to be drawn between Bartok's adoption of folk, Hendrix's absorption of the blues, and Bach's 'universal freedom of spirit'". When he retreated to Malvern he lost himself in Bach, working day in, day out, to investigate that freedom - the kind of freedom that the likes of Pablo Casals spent lifetimes unlocking. He'll tell you that his "politically incorrect" account of Vivaldi's Seasons (and you thought he didn't know) was in some respects a reaction against the fashion for "period authenticity". Believe it or not, he doesn't have a lot of time for musical fashions, whatever form they take.

And he's putting his money where his mouth is with Kafka. It's going to come as a surprise to many that this new album is worlds removed from the acid-jazz-rave that we might, just might, have anticipated. Kafka's musical imperative is back-to-basics in the purest, truest sense - it's almost entirely about melody. Sweet, touching melody. Which may be the most enduring statement that any composer can make. The tone suggests celtic - maybe because that's the direction in which the violin has tended to lean - but Kennedy can't tell you why and how and where the melodies come from. He can tell you that they're very much his own, that he feels totally at one with their spirit. "For once I wasn't having to ask myself questions that the composer wasn't around to answer. That was strange - and liberating. I've always believed that presenting and nurturing melody was one of the things I did best, so here was my chance to get back to some basic melodic principles and be true to them. That's something I've learned from musicians with nothing to prove, musicians who knew how to be satisfied with less, people like Miles Davis."

If many of the key names in Kennedy's pantheon are jazz musicians, that's because he still believes in the concept of improvisation as the key to everything that he - or any other musician - does. "I believe absolutely in the spontaneity of the moment, however thoroughly an interpretation is planned. Whether a decision is made half-a-second before you play it or 10 weeks before, there's always room for manoeuvre. Improvisation doesn't really mean random, though someone like Thelonious Monk, or a classical equivalent like Alfred Cortot, can make it sound random and inevitable in the turn of two notes. That's because there's always an underlying purpose at work. A respect for structure. There has to be. I think you only really get to be free when you understand the importance of discipline."

Which, in Kennedy's case, is a religious four or five hours a day, just to keep the music he cares about alive within himself until the time is right to go public again. He will. Forget his rash statements about "opting out" from the classical scene. Then he was cornered, now he's not. He's a "live" performer. He lives for it. He won't say where or when. Just "I've got a few ideas". Chamber music will take precedence, mainly on account of the intimacy, the "special relationships" it affords (Alfred Brendel may not know it yet but Nige likes the idea of some informal work on the Brahms and Beethoven Sonatas). But there is still unfinished business in the concerto repertoire: Prokofiev, maybe Mozart, maybe Barber, maybe another crack at the Elgar. He had second thoughts about that one a week or so after the recording ("once you've captured a moment, there's always something new opening up..."). But again, it's all a question of the right conditions (maybe a tour), the right collaborators (Mariss Jansons doesn't know it yet, but he's high on Nige's "hit list"). All options are open. He's got what he always wanted. Freedom. Choice. His instinct - "the most precious thing that any musician has". He should know. Prodigal prodigy? If you say so.