Nigel Kennedy, The New Four Seasons tour, Colston Hall, Bristol, review: 'always restlessly exploring'

Violinist Nigel Kennedy launches a new version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
Violinist Nigel Kennedy in his beloved Aston Villa shirt Credit: Jack Smith/Sony

The violinist launched his new version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in typically bold style

The question that haunts any gig by world-famous violinist Nigel Kennedy is: will he appear in that terrible Aston Villa shirt, which now looks as old as his famous recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, released more than 30 years ago?

The answer last night was: of course, he did. But being Nigel, he tucked it under another shirt of equally ancient vintage, and gave us only a naughty two-second flash. Yes, the Peter Pan of the classical world was back, hair in a state of perpetual electric surprise, bobbing and lunging like a puppet on speed, giving his players a triumphant fist pump after every number.

On that level, Nigel Kennedy is always the same. On another he’s always different, always restlessly exploring. This concert launched his new version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The first had blazed with virtuoso energy, but was faithful to the original. 

As well as his revamped Vivaldi, Kennedy offered tributes to four other musicians Credit: Action Press/REX Shutterstock

This new one – created for a mixed ensemble of nine string players, piano, bass and drums – interleaves jazz, folk and blues-flavoured links between the movements. These things invade Vivaldi’s score, albeit in a way which Kennedy believes is faithful to the wildly rhapsodic, semi-improvised spirit of the original.

That filled the concert’s second half. Before that Kennedy offered four tributes to musicians he admires. One of them evoked Stéphane Grappelli, Kennedy’s jazz violin God, in a sweetly elegiac number which at one point nearly tipped into Fiddler on the Roof. For Polish jazz guitarist Jarka Smietana, Kennedy played a delightfully nostalgic number by Polish film composer Krzysztof Komeda, with swooping glissandi like night birds calling. 

Mark O’Connor, blue-grass violinist, was saluted in a wild stomping number. Most revealing of all was the piece for great classical violinist Isaac Stern. This had a lovely tranced middle section, where time seemed to stop; it was like a gauche version of the mysterious static moment in Elgar’s violin concerto, another star in Kennedy’s Empyrean.

All these aspects of Kennedy’s puzzling, endearing musical personality came tumbling out in his New Four Seasons. Often they were flung together cheek-by-jowl with no transition, like the rhythm-and-blues pattern that kept shoving aside Vivaldi’s swaying rhythm in Autumn. The slow movement of Spring had a dark harmonic flavour that wasn’t so far from John Barry’s 007 score.

The piano wasn’t always a happy addition – sometimes it gummed up the texture and took the edge off Vivaldi’s strangeness - but it certainly gave a startling change of harmonic colour at times, such as the last movement of Winter.

Was this disrespectful to Vivaldi? Perhaps, but only on the surface. “You respect, I love,” Stravinsky once said to someone who accused him of “disrespecting” the older composers he adapted. Nigel Kennedy could say the same.

Nigel Kennedy tours his ‘New Four Seasons’ till January 31 and then again in May. See for details