United Kingdom Brahms and Beethoven: Nigel Kennedy (violin),Oxford Philomusica / Marios Papadopoulos (conductor), New Theatre, Oxford, 3.6.2014 (CR)
Brahms Symphony No. 3 in F major, Op. 90
Beethoven Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61
Frustratingly, there are two Nigel Kennedys – the violinist on the one hand, and ‘Nigel Kennedy’ the act on the other – and like all schizophrenics these dual personalities are about as reconcilable as north and south. Frustrating because, when he takes the music seriously, he can turn in performances of great sensitivity and consideration towards the music, most notably here in the absolutely rapt, unruffled singing quality he brought from his instrument in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. Similarly, although the first movement was taken very swiftly (faster even than many historically informed performances would countenance) Kennedy’s playing was quite the opposite of hectic or hectoring, as he maintained a crisp and composed solo thread throughout this long movement.
That the concert was going to be a vehicle for the Nigel Kennedy caper, however, was evident enough from the placing of the Violin Concerto in the second half. Before that began, there were already encores in the form of the first, eight and sixth Inventions by Bach, played in duet with the Oxford Philomusica’s principal cellist, Peter Adams, admittedly with flair and charm. The reason for the unusually hasty tempo of the concerto’s first movement became clear with the cadenza. On came a snare drummer and a guitarist, and the lead double bassist stepped forward too, to play a jazzy riff with Kennedy lasting some ten minutes, before the movement was able to return to its natural conclusion.
If there had been some thematic connection with Beethoven’s composition in this improvisation, it might have been possible to accept it as an unorthodox but, in some postmodern way, valid comment upon the received score. But there was no such connection, forcing one to judge this to be an act of pure self-indulgence at best, wilful cultural hooliganism at worst, begging the question as to why such a musical stunt could not simply be left to take the place of an independent encore at the end. Kennedy’s apparently improvised cadenza in the finale seemed almost conventional in comparison, with its more stylistically congruent scales and arpeggios cascading over the menacing plucked repetitions of a single note in the strings – the latter at least ostensibly picking up on the timpani’s five-fold beat at the very beginning of the Concerto. The same motif appeared in the background instrumental accompaniment to the quasi-improvisation Kennedy gave as the first encore, so perhaps it is just a musical tic of his after all. The performance of his own Melody in the Wind (written originally for Stéphane Grappelli) after that was heartfelt.
Seeing as Marios Papadopoulos and the Philomusica performed Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 in the first half, in hindsight it is not entirely their fault if their performance seemed staid in comparison with Kennedy’s maiming of the Beethoven. In fact there was much that was attractive in the performance of the symphony, with an enchanting surge and ebb within phrases, a dainty way with the second subject of the first movement, and a smile verging upon a smirk in the jaunty second movement. It tended to lack something in structural logic and tension between broader paragraphs though, especially in the dramatic outer movements where the symphonic discourse sounded rather laid back as a result. That said, considerable force was unleashed at the climax of the finale’s development where it leads straight back into the heavy lunging figures of the abbreviated recapitulation. The third movement – having more the effect of a slow movement here than the preceding Andante – achieved a creditable contrast between the cellos’ sullen melody at the opening and the luscious sound of the full strings later on.