Tuesday's concert saw the Oxford Philomusica displaced from the Grade I splendour of their home in the Sheldonian Theatre to the larger venue of the art-deco style New Theatre. The reason? Nigel Kennedy was in town. The violinist's three previous appearances with the ensemble had attracted full houses, and he drew a large and enthusiastic crowd again this time. Despite this overwhelmingly positive response, Kennedy's concern for showmanship meant that he often failed to hit the mark musically.
In order to build anticipation, Brahms' Third Symphony was first on the bill. The opening seemed slightly hesitant as the Philomusica struggled to adjust to the acoustics (with the woodwind sounding distant behind the Proscenium arch), but they soon settled into a light but muscular sound. Marios Papadopoulos constantly moved the music on, privileging flow over flexibility. Although this suited the tempestuous passages (in the development of the first movement, for example), a little more breathing space would have been appreciated at other points. It frequently created a sense of four-squareness, particularly in the third movement Poco allegretto, preventing Brahms' lines from fully flourishing and quashing the impact of some of the magical moments. However, it lent a welcome sense of propulsion to the fourth movement: the cello theme overflowed with joy, and the development section was taut and purposeful. There was still a sense that the orchestra wasn't entirely comfortable in their surroundings, with several patchy moments (the start of the third movement felt notably unsettled) and a touch of bite often intruding into their sound.
Entering with a shout of "Ready to rumble?", Nigel Kennedy was as much entertainer as musician. Bantering with the orchestra and fist-pumping the front desk, he began with a selection of three Bach Two-part inventions with Peter Adams, the orchestra's principal cellist. Careful but unfussy, the pair made light work of these pieces, tossing them off with refinement and grace (although Adams' articulation failed to match the crispness of Kennedy's).
Love it or hate it, it's impossible to deny an instinctive quality to Kennedy's playing: he is truly spontaneous, creating an interesting unpredictability. However, he seemed only to engage with the music on a moment-to-moment basis, meaning that his performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major often seemed to lack direction. Inconsistency was my principal objection with Kennedy's playing as a whole; moments of breathtaking beauty and vulnerability were followed by questionable intonation, and his sound often possessed a raw edge. His theatrical quirks (for example, the distracting foot stamps) would have been considerably more acceptable had they been accompanied by a more polished performance.
True to Kennedy's wild card reputation, this was definitely not the Beethoven I was expecting. Foot stamps aside, things were normal enough until the cadenza at the end of the first movement. Snare drum, double bass and acoustic guitar joined Kennedy at the front of the stage, and the violinist led the group into an extended jazz improvisation section. This was followed by a section of wind improvisation over a sustained string chord, before Kennedy led back to the movement proper. The sense of the bizarre returned once again in the last movement, this time with improvisation in a rock style.
As for the rest of the concerto? Kennedy's performance definitely had some special moments, but these felt compromised by his indulgence in the cadenzas. The Philomusica provided strong support, with tight ensemble and textural clarity. They created a sense of refined stillness in the second movement over which Kennedy's dolce lines unfolded beautifully. The third movement was taken at a relatively relaxed pace, bringing out a singing quality to the playful rondo theme.
With two lengthy cadenzas, it certainly felt like the concerto had overstayed its welcome. However, Kennedy was just getting into his stride. A folk reel medley was followed by an arrangement of Melody in the Wind (Kennedy's own composition for Stéphane Grappelli), which saw concertmaster Tamás András take the second solo part. After another extended jam session, Kennedy plunged into Bach's Partita in E major no. 3, finally bringing the concerto to a close.
Although Kennedy received an enthusiastic response from the New Theatre audience, I was left cold by his performance. It seemed that he was trying to turn the concert into a different type of gig, resulting in an odd mishmash which made for an unsatisfying musical experience.
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