Nigel Kennedy’s repackaged 1986 recording of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto is an adventure – free, rhapsodic, emphasising the constant flow of song which is the work’s main asset. Perhaps he’s a little over-keen to emphasise what melancholy there is here, nearly bringing the outer movements to a halt with the bitter-sweet dreams of second subjects, but the Canzonetta is a miracle of introspection. All this passes Gil Shaham by. While the young Israeli clearly has a fabulous palette, conjuring a bright, beautiful sheen at the top of the instrument (though unduly spotlit by DG), he rarely uses it discriminatingly enough, and the sense of flexible movement so vital for the Tchaikovsky is missing.
If anyone has earned the right to mess around with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons it is Nigel Kennedy, the violin world’s Marmite violinist. Remember how fresh he made this music sound on his recording of a quarter-century ago? This latest version offers a ferment of all he’s played since – concertos, jazz, Jimi Hendrix. It’s affectionate and irreverent in equal measure, and Kennedy and his Orchestra of Life never sound less than riveting. Pretty much all Vivaldi’s notes are there; around, above and in between them come interjections, overlays and linking passages involving guest musicians from jazz and rock: Orphy Robinson, Damon Reece, Z-Star and others. Spring is welcomed in by a distant-sounding intro on an electric-guitar. Summer’s storms bring forth bursts of crazily sampled static. Autumn tears off at a cracking pace, but with a jazz trumpet sauntering lazily over the top. It all sounds like a colossal jam session from the inside of a Botticelli painting.
Medieval Baebes and other far greater shocks to the bourgeoisie have come along. Wild adventures placed under the rubric of performances of Vivaldi's Four Seasons are commonplace. Yet Nigel Kennedy continues to roost atop the classical sales charts in Europe, and even to command a decent following in the U.S. despite a low American tolerance for British eccentricity. How does he do it? He has kept reinventing himself successfully. Perhaps he's the classical world's version of Madonna: he's possessed of both unerring commercial instincts and with enough of a sense of style to be able to dress them up as forms of rebellion. Inner Thoughts is a collection of slow movements – inner movements of famous concertos from Bach and Vivaldi to Brahms, Bruch, and Elgar. Actually, the only composer falling into the middle of that large chronological gap is Mendelssohn; Kennedy apparently needs a sort of otherworldly serenity for this project, which Baroque and post-Romantic slow movements may have, but Mozart does not. At any rate, this is no radical idea; it's a softball straight up the middle.
If the notion persists that Nigel Kennedy is the enfant terrible of classical music – too rebellious or facile to be taken seriously – then perhaps it is time to reconsider his categorization. Kennedy's varied interests certainly take him beyond the boundaries of the typical classical performer, and his performance style may be too flamboyant to suit some listeners' tastes. But East Meets East is far from shocking, if understood as an exploration of Eastern European music, presented in a fusion of popular styles without pandering to the classical audience with crossover concessions. Fans of world music and open-minded listeners of any stripe may find something to appreciate here. Appearing with the Polish folk band Kroke and surrounded by several guest artists of international reputation, Kennedy shows that his involvement with this ethnic music is honest, if not always inspired.
…Technically Kennedy's playing as represented on this disc is beyond reproach—anyone who can play the finales flying thirds and sixths with such dash and precision plainly knows how to get what he wants out of the instrument. The performance is, as you would expect, highly idiosyncratic, though fortunately there's nothing to match the controversial stylistic excursions of his Four Seasons… Kennedy seems inclined to treat the [first] movement as a kind of colossal accompanied cadenza…