Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi’s The New Four Seasons

Nigel Kennedy (violin); Orchestra of Life

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COMPOSERS: Vivaldi
LABELS: Sony
ALBUM TITLE: Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi’s The New Four Seasons
WORKS: The Four Seasons
PERFORMER: Nigel Kennedy (violin); Orchestra of Life
CATALOGUE NO: 88875076722

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With over 250 recordings currently listed across all formats, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is the concerto gift that keeps on giving. But in a crowded market place, how to stand out from the crowd? Nigel Kennedy found the answer a quarter of a century ago, combining some fabulous fiddle playing with just enough creative eccentricity to ruffle a few feathers. Now he’s back for a second bite of the cherry and ‘ruffle’ doesn’t begin to cover it. In place of the English Chamber Orchestra he deploys his own band plus a phalanx of guest artists spanning the jazz and rock worlds; and in a mash-up that takes no hostages, he thrashes the Baroque notions of instrumental embellishment and continuo improvisation to within an inch of their lives. It’s heady stuff. Diverting even…at a first listen. But for all the charm (really!) of Spring’s twittering mixed with actual birdsong and fey exclamation of ‘tweet tweet’, or the atmospheric interpolated second ‘Transitoire’ that precedes Autumn’s hunt finale, the swerves between louche cocktail piano cheesiness and drum-driven anarchic assault, threaten a car crash Kennedy just about averts. It’s a Four Seasons that’s not about Vivaldi, nor even about the violin. Try before you buy!

Hungarian violinist Roby Lakatos’s ‘USP’ is to deliver Vivaldi ‘alla gypsy’ which means sporadically dressing up solo lines with a dash of paprika, and substituting cimbalom for harpsichord, which adds an intriguing dream-like dimension to Autumn’s Adagio but elsewhere robs the music of the harpsichord’s propulsive force. The support of the Brussels Chamber Orchestra is generally buoyant, but the word-painting is often under-characterised and Lakatos himself is prey to some sloppy articulation and skin-of-the-teeth negotiation of tricky passagework.

Like Lakatos, Kerenza Peacock and the Trafalgar Sinfonia opt to pair the Seasons with a 21st-century response. Sung with inscrutable impassivity by Grace Davidson, Oliver Davis’s Anno sets Vivaldi’s sonnets in an approachable idiom that tends to generalise the texts. But Peacock’s own response to Vivaldi’s ‘seasonal’ narrative is sprightly, even if Ivor Setterfield often favours comfortable tempos, and there’s a welcome lack of sentimentality as Winter’s fireside Largo beckons.

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The 18th century has the field to itself for James Ehnes’s first venture into the Baroque on disc – notwithstanding Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata as mediated through Kreisler’s realisation, its commanding cadenza a tremulous delight. The Vivaldi is less successful though since both Ehnes and his well-upholstered Sidney strings tend to play the notes rather than tell the story in a reading that, for all its elegance, is more faithful to the letter than the spirit of the score. Paul Riley