Beethoven: Violin Concerto; Mozart: Violin Concerto No.4; Silver: Creepin' in

Nigel Kennedy/Polish Chamber Orchestra (EMI 3953732)

18 May 2008 3 stars

Kennedy: Beethoven and MozartNigel Kennedy's new disc couples Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major with Mozart's No. 4, K. 218. As an added extra, the violinist performs his own arrangement of Horace Silver's 'Creepin' in'. This would seem, on the surface at least, a rather eccentric encore. However, it is only an extension of an even more eccentric decision to produce two cadenzas, for the first and second movements of the Mozart concerto, that plunge us straight from the 18th Century into the 21st, 'embracing jazz and other non-classical styles'. This is something that is likely to put many purists off the disc immediately. It's a shame, though, since the recording of the Beethoven concerto is a very respectable addition to the catalogue.

Kennedy has explained that in his new recording of the Beethoven he was attempting to get away from the epic sort of reading that he was encouraged towards when he recorded the work with Klaus Tennstedt over fifteen years ago. Under the violinist's own directorship, it is an interpretation characterised by a certain leanness, with Kennedy himself often bringing a refreshing, improvisatory feel to the high-lying, pensive filigree of the first movement (listen, in particular, to the passage with the delicately controlled trills from around 7'15). The Polish Chamber Orchestra produces a full sound and is sometimes encouraged, in the first movement's repeated chords, to dig in; it's an effect which might disturb some, but which goes some way to keeping the movement going, stopping any feeling of drag.

Throughout, Kennedy's tone is sweet but he is more closely balanced than ideal, meaning that often figures that should be meandering accompaniments to the melodic ideas in the orchestra are placed unsuitably far forward in the sound-picture. Other times I found the intonation high up occasionally a little inaccurate – although this settles down as the work progresses – and I was not convinced by his tendency to swell on some notes. However, he creates a lovely sense of mystery, without a loss of momentum, as we come out of the first movement's development section and the effect, this time with an unapologetic slowing of the tempo, as he brings us out of the cadenza (Kennedy's own, based on Kreisler's) is irresistible.

This slight tendency towards indulgence remains in an account of the slow movement that is often extremely beautiful but where one occasionally fears it's going to grind to a halt. Here Kennedy blurs the boundary between meditative and trancelike, even if in purely sonic terms there's no denying the beauty of it all. The dreaminess is shaken off for an efficient if sometimes driven account of the finale.  

The Mozart, for many, will not even be in the running due to the cadenzas. However, even if one can ignore them, it already strikes me as a performance far less persuasive than the Beethoven. Kennedy's playing throughout is characterised by a rather unseductive brittleness of timbre and the whole thing is driven and sometimes distinctly charmless. The swelling of notes that I occasionally found disturbing in the Beethoven is now also employed by the orchestral strings, to similarly unconvincing effect. The orchestral sound itself is full and although there are times where it's pared down to provide Kennedy with a cushion of accompaniment, on the whole this is Mozart playing that lacks the requisite wit and transparency. A harpsichord plodding away in the background doesn't add much.

And so to the cadenzas, where Kennedy (his violin now amplified) is joined by double bass player Michal Baranski. I have to admit, on a certain level I enjoyed these improvisations, producing as they do a relaxed and dreamy sound-world, informed by hazy recollections of the Mozart's own melodic material. Lindsay Kemp writes in the programme note – one suspects through slightly gritted teeth – that 'the radical cadenzas … keep the composer's own material very much in mind.' In fact the only material from the Mozart that is kept in mind in the first movement's two minute cadenza is the melodic idea of the work's first bar or two. However, the effect is so jarring, the sound so far removed from that of Mozart that one can't help but wish that these improvisations could have been added as extras rather than in the middle of the work.
In the second movement, Kennedy's reading is maybe more convincing and he treats us to some beautifully lyrical playing, even if he still pushes a little. The second movement's cadenza is in the same vein as the first's and jars similarly. In the third movement, treated to an efficient but again essentially charmless performance, the cadenza is conventional – reflected, it seems, by the fact that it is credited pointedly to 'Nigel Kennedy', rather than his jazzy alter-ego, 'Kennedy' – but doesn't show much more awareness of 18th Century style than the others. The encore, which Kemp suggests is the natural choice after 'having this welcomed jazz into the world of high Classicism', is well performed but only serves to emphasise the bizarreness of the Mozart performance.

By Hugo Shirley