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Who is Nigel Kennedy? Everything you need to know about the famous British violinist and his best recordings

The ‘Liberace of the nineties’ is best know for his best-selling recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons

Nigel Kennedy
Published: May 9, 2022 at 11:49 am
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Who is Nigel Kennedy?

British violinist Nigel Kennedy is one of the world’s most recognised classical musicians, known for the phenomenal success of his Vivaldi Four Seasons recording with the English Chamber Orchestra, which sold over 3 million copies following its release in 1989. Known as a ‘Liberace of the nineties’, he bucked against the prevailing image of a straightlaced, besuited classical musician with his flamboyant dress, ‘mockney’ accent and punk haircut. In subsequent years, Kennedy expanded beyond the classical sphere into other genres, including jazz, klezmer and rock.

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When and where was Nigel Kennedy born?

Kennedy was born in Brighton, England, on 28 December 1967. His grandfather was Lauri Kennedy, an Australian and principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. His father, John Kennedy was born in England and became principal cellist of Sir Thomas Beecham's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

When did he first learn to play the violin?

Kennedy was a musical prodigy, who at the age of seven became a pupil at the Yehudi Menuhin School and a protégé of Menuhin himself. He later studied at the Juilliard School in New York with Dorothy DeLay. He made his recording debut in 1984 with Elgar's Violin Concerto.

Where does Nigel Kennedy live?

Kennedy divides his time between residences in the UK and Poland. He has one son and is married to Polish lawyer, Agnieszka.

What is Nigel Kennedy most famous for?

Kennedy’s 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra was phenomenally successful – selling more than 3 million copies and earning a place as one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time. The album remained at the top of the UK classical charts for almost two years.

Kennedy is also known for his anti-establishment dress and accent, his love of football and his socialist political views.

What have been the other highlights of Nigel Kennedy’s career?

In 1992 Kennedy announced his departure from the world of classical music, instead turning to jazz and rock collaborations and arrangements. He also explored the world of Klezmer with the Polish jazz band Kroke, and in 2005 recorded the Blue Note Sessions, featuring a band of jazz greats, including Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette.

He didn’t abandon the classical world completely, however, returning to the Proms in 2008 after an absence of 21 years to perform Elgar’s Violin Concerto. He was also appointed artistic director of the Polish Chamber Orchestra in 2002 and in 2010 founded the Orchestra of Life, an ensemble of mainly young Polish musicians.

What violin does Nigel Kennedy play?

As well as several customised 5-string electric violins, Nigel Kennedy plays a 1732 instrument by Carlo Bergonzi of Cremona.

What are Nigel Kennedy’s best recordings?

Beyond his 1989 Four Seasons recording, Kennedy has made best-selling concerto recordings of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Walton, alongside chamber music and recital discs. Following his 2005 Blue Note Sessions jazz album, he released Polish Spirit in 2007 with the Polish Chamber Orchestra, featuring works by Emil Mlynarski and Mieczyslaw Karlowicz. A Very Nice Album in 2009 and SHHH! in 2010, each with his Nigel Kennedy Quintet, featured his own improvisations and compositions.

The Four Seasons

English Chamber Orchestra

Warner Classics 2564628814

Kennedy’s original still sounds as if it could have been made yesterday – sparky, energetic and tastefully different, it set the bar for others to try to reach. It is one of the best recordings of Vivaldi's Four Seasons ever

Elgar Violin Concerto

LPO/Vernon Handley

EMI Classics 4332872

Recorded when Kennedy was just 16, this award-winning disc is the natural heir to Yehudi Menuhin’s own legendary 1932 recording under the baton of Elgar himself.

Brahms Violin Concerto

LPO/Klaus Tennstedt

The first movement’s pace may be on the slow side, but Kennedy makes up for it with scintillating, clear, lyrical playing and his own quirky cadenza. The slow movement is sublime.

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto

English Chamber Orchestra/Jeffrey Tate

Recorded two years before their 1989 Four Seasons, Kennedy and the ECO have a wonderful sense of tempo and drama: the finale may be unrushed but it’s still sprightly.

Sibelius Violin Concerto

CBSO/Simon Rattle

EMI Classics 749 7172

A winning combination here, with Rattle and the CBSO sweeping Kennedy along in their wake back in 1992. It’s an exciting listen with just the right amount of swagger.

East Meets East

The Kroke Band

EMI Classics 557 5122

Now for something completely different – Kennedy’s imaginative but light exploration of eastern European and Arabic music is an enjoyable romp.

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Top image by Getty Images

Authors

Charlotte SmithEditor of BBC Music Magazine

Charlotte Smith is the editor of BBC Music Magazine. Born in Australia, she hails from a family of musicians with whom she played chamber music from a young age. She earned a bachelor’s degree in violin performance from London's Royal College of Music, followed by a master’s in English from Cambridge University. She was editor of The Strad from 2017 until the beginning of 2022, and has also worked for Gramophone Magazine and as a freelance arts writer. In her spare time, she continues to perform as an active chamber musician.

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