If I had to take one of his works to a desert island, it would be his Violin Concerto. This is not his most popular work by a long way, but to me it’s as perfect a piece of music as exists. It’s not as confrontational or perhaps aggressive as many of his larger pieces, and perhaps that’s the reason why I have continued to admire and love it for the last 40 odd years.
I first heard it whilst I was at University, and bought a recording in around 1968 which has remained my favourite since that time. Arthur Grumiaux, an underrated Belgian Violinist took a non-theatrical and slightly understated view of the work, which to my mind worked perfectly. He played the amazing Kreisler Cadenza, and the point of re-entry into the second movement is quite, quite beautiful. I have listened to it hundreds of times, and I never tire of it.
Very recently, another violinist, one Nigel Kennedy, has issued a new recording with the Polish Chamber Orchestra (a first for me, at least). Nigel Kennedy is a very unusual character. He looks (and speaks) as if he is a hooligan of the first order, and he is, of all things, an Aston Villa supporter, which in itself makes you wonder if all the screws have been done up tight enough. Frighteningly, to me at least who sees him as a slip of a lad, he has recently passed his 50th Birthday, and lives for part of each year in Poland – hence presumably the orchestra.
BUT, by the Lord Harry, he can play the violin. Although I’m not a World expert on these things, if there’s a better violinist in the World, I certainly don’t know his name. At the very top level, it’s not just about technical proficiency, as they all have that skill in spades. You need to think about the music and come to your own individual conclusions about it, as well as retaining the passion that brought you into the game in the first place when you were young. This he does, in a way that most Division One Artists seem to lose as they get older. I’ve heard him play live in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, with Jimmy Hendrix being the composer under the spotlight that night, and we saw, or more accurately heard a very different side of him then. He played, sometimes on his own, and you could have heard a pin drop - the audience were transfixed.
Give me him any-day compared to a Vengerov, in the same way I think pianist Martha Argerich stands head and shoulders above the technical, but to me rather soulless playing, of someone like Kissin. It’s the individuality, the mercurial nature, that makes the difference.
Kennedy recorded the Beethoven Concerto a few years ago, with Klaus Tennstedt in a very measured, and to me, unremarkable performance. This latest one is a very different animal. Probably because he also directs the orchestra, you are getting undiluted Kennedy here, rather than a composite view of a soloist and a conductor who may not be seeing the work in the same way. Here, it’s vibrant and almost sensual in places, and it ggrabbed me as I listened to it for the first time yesterday. The cadenza is quite beautiful, and the last movement is a real joy to listen to. Altogether, a terrific performance.
It’s quite different from the Grumiaux version, and I’m just off to listen again to that version, not to see which is better, but just to see how another great violinist approaches the Number One piece of music in my Classical Top Ten.