Monday 16 November 2015

Wayward, unconventional and often wild, Nigel Kennedy’s New Four Seasons may be but they are so tremendously musical and infectious

Anyone who has heard Nigel Kennedy  live with the Orchestra of Life will know what a unique musical experience it can be.

His much publicised New Four Seasons recording for Sony Classical  is sure to delight supporters and annoy detractors in equal measure. What should not be in doubt is the unique musicianship of Kennedy and his band.


Nigel Kennedy puts his own titles against each section of each concerto in what are effectively arrangements of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) Concertos for violin and strings, Op.8 No’s 1-4, The Four Seasons (Le Quattro Stagioni). He has also added linking sections that he calls Transitoire.

The opening of the first movement of Spring, Melodious Incantation will come as an immediate shock with electric guitars and a drum setting the beat before the strings enter with the familiar Vivaldi theme to which the Orchestra of Life add some subtly unusual instrumental textures. Bird twitterings are heard as well as a female spoken ‘tweet, tweet.’ Nigel Kennedy proves, as would be expected, a phenomenal soloist.

Electronic sounds rise as we enter Transitoire #, with a piano joining as Kennedy introduces a mysterious, shifting texture around a Vivaldian rhythmic motif in this strange yet oddly beautiful and hypnotic section that leads straight into the next movement, The Goatherd Sleeps With His Trusty Dog Beside Him . Kennedy weaves a rather romantic version of the theme over more vibrant string textures of the other instrumentalists bringing a lovely flow and some lovely decorations.

These musicians flow straight into a brief but beautifully conceived 4 Transitoire ## before a rhythmic pounding of hand drums introduces a bright and rhythmic Nymphs And Shepherds Dance. It has a real swing with some exceptionally fine string playing from both soloist and members of the Orchestra of Life. There is a fine sweep with some intense textures developed before a rather mad section of voices and drums. The strings sweep all aside before a slow contemplative section though the voices, presumably the dancing shepherds, and drums appear again before the end.

As the first movement of Summer, Destiny opens it appears to be a pretty straight version but soon the music suddenly livens up with a fast and furious section pointed up by a drum and other percussion rhythms. Strange little instrumental timbres are heard in slower moments with Kennedy creating some terrific little trills. Eventually the music goes at a terrific rhythmic pace spurred on by drums. There are some lovely flowing sections where Kennedy produces the most exquisite tone. 

Light drumming taps, electric guitar and electronic twitterings open this jazz inspired Transitoire # where strings are subtly heard in long held rising phrases before this short section fades out.

There are some glorious string textures in Fear, strange yet beautiful as this movement slowly opens. Soon there is a tremendous outburst before the music returns to its quieter, slow nature. Further outbursts occur with voices that are more blended than before.  There is some quite exquisite string tone over a piano and bass rhythm before a further outburst with drums and we are led into Transitoire ##. This brings a gentle, hushed string line over accompanying piano chords as it moves forward to the next movement.

His Fears Are Only Too True brings sudden loud, frantic and incisive string phrases of Vivaldi’s own creation but with more subtly unusual instrumental textures. These musicians produce some terrific sonorities and, indeed, volume. They are soon interrupted by vocal sounds and rather strange electronic noises. Despite all the somewhat eccentric sounds it is hard not to get carried away with these players.

The opening movement of Autumn, The Peasant Celebrates the Rich Harvest brings a jazz trumpet and drum complete with faux Louis Armstrong growls before the strings weave Vivaldi’s music around the trumpet tune. Here Vivaldi’s music is varied and pulled around more than anywhere with Kennedy bringing some extraordinarily virtuosic moments. Later there is a slow section in which these performers create a quite different sound world, distant, melodic, slow and flowing – before the fast and furious music returns.

Pizzicato strings introduce Transitoire #, moving around the sound stage before Kennedy’s solo violin gently rises over the other instrumentalists and electronic sounds before gently, quietly and imperceptibly moving into Pleasure of Sweetest Slumber  where these players bring an almost sacred atmosphere with electronic organ textures underlaying the strange sounds through which pizzicato strings move. Kennedy weaves some exquisite sonorities through the haunting background before flowing quietly into the next section.

Transitoire ## opens with a held chord with constantly shifting textures. Slowly a lovely melody arises, melancholy and atmospheric, bringing a rather Celtic feel. A trumpet eventually joins to add a nonchalant jazz accompaniment as some very fine textures are created between various instruments in this quite extended piece.

A vibrant, heavily rhythmic Horns, Guns, and Dogs brings some quite unusual, slightly nasal sounds from the orchestra. Kennedy seems to have great fun in his interplay with the other musicians, moving through a myriad of unusual textures and sounds whilst still basically observing Vivaldi’s theme. There are sections of wild electronic sounds before quietening briefly but rising to a terrific coda with a last shout.

There is a slow pulsing opening to Prolitoire # an introduction to Winter where piano chords are played gently over a sustained string layer before Kennedy’s violin rises out of the sound before fading and we are suddenly into the first movement, To Shiver, Frozen with pounding strings. A piano provides the theme before the soloist and strings take Vivaldi’smelody, rising up to a tremendously vibrant statement of the theme. Kennedy is remarkable here creating some subtle and unusual textures.

There is a fast flowing, more conventional The Rain Outside yet with textures always bringing a different feel. Kennedy finds a lovely sweep, with such a glorious tone, beautifully controlled playing.
Transitoire # opens gently with drooping and shifting strings phrases, gently moving into the next movement, Walk on the Ice with no obvious transition as Kennedy weaves a lovely little motif that suddenly turns into Vivaldi’s theme, brilliantly done. It has a fine rhythmic pulse and lovely string textures, a real Vivaldian beauty, interrupted by sudden faster passage. Eventually this violinist pulls the theme around a bit but always musically and there is a real vibrancy towards the coda.

Nigel Kennedy and his fellow musicians conclude with The End where pizzicato strings move quickly around in this brief final section.

It is obvious that much care and creativity has gone into these performances, as well as much sheer enjoyment. These musicians throw their all into their playing. Wayward, unconventional and often wild these performances may be but they are so tremendously musical and infectious. My one problem is merely that the vocal interjections work less well on a recording than in a live performance.

They are vividly recorded.

Of course this isn’t intended to be anything like a straightforward performance of Vivaldi’s original. For that, one should go to recordings such as La Serenissima’s on Avie.

Taken on its own terms this New Four Seasons will bring much enjoyment for those sympathetic to what Nigel Kennedy and his players achieve.

If you want a taster then click here for the Album Trailer video: 

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