I was in high school when the first of Nigel Kennedy’s Vivaldi: Four Seasons recordings came out, recorded on EMI with the English Chamber Orchestra. (His second, also on EMI, featured a collaboration with members of the Berlin Philharmonic.) This release on Sony is the most recent, and the title should point to something different. He calls it The New Four Seasons. It’s so “out there” that it demands a new categorization, classical-crossover.
My history with his first release is personal and worth retelling, at least here in part. I bought the CD at a second-hand store, but was enamored with the cover, showing a young guy with a very cool haircut. I later received the VHS video of the album as a gift, and brought that to the barber shop. I asked for my hair to be cut like Nigel’s.
The Nigel recording was a special thing I shared with two of my high school friends. One friend genuinely was taking to baroque music, and purchased a number of things I was into: many recordings on Archiv Production of Bach, etc. My second friend liked popular music, including heavy metal. The fact that we hung out, listening to Nigel Kennedy’s Vivaldi at high volumes in my car, driving around town, made an impression on me. I was amazed my friend liked it. It opened up a new world of music to him. It was something we bonded over.
Nigel’s recording, I believe, inspired a number of recordings after it, including the one by Il Giardino Armonico. After that, so many took to the poems associated with each season more literally, and suddenly everyone was trying to play catch-up with Nigel. Nigel is a legitimate concert violinist, but his renown comes with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. He credits his producer in the notes to this release, but it’s hard to point to any one example like this one where one record has had a profound influence on performance practice. I don’t listen to the old album much at all; the fact that period performers have probably done “better” than Nigel since it’s release in 1989-90, have put my time with the Four Seasons with them. I even have a friend who, when he’s wanted to audition my stereo, asks for the “original,” having experienced it himself in college. “You want to hear his latest” I asked a couple years ago. “No, please play the original… I know it well.”
This new release might be well considered an “arrangement” of Vivaldi, complete with trumpet, piano, electric guitars, synths, drums, and even voices. If you’re a purist, stay away. If you’re more liberal and open-minded, prepare for an adventure.
Kennedy takes the 12 tracks and expands them to 21. There’s a string orchestra, yes. And Nigel is the soloist, yes. But everything else is up for re-thinking. There’s likely two dozen or more ways this could have gone, and I am betting this is but one version that was committed to record. A lot of work went into post-production, I am sure, and this won’t be for everyone. But as a historically-informed fan and someone who was classically trained, I love this version. It is for sure a new take, a fresh take, a modern one, on Vivaldi’s violin concertos. It will grow old over repeated listens, which is why I wish Kennedy had offered us a way to program our computers/players to come up with different combinations of instrumentation and ideas. But I won’t dwell on that; what remains is musically interesting, and speaks to the musicianmanship of those involved in the recording, in addition to the recording professionals that mixed it.
The Trainsitoire movements are among my favorites. This is music that should be savored, at least in the first few listens, for its newness and novelty. The recorded result is dynamic and may also appeal to those outside of the classical mainstream.
It took me a few times, actually, to buy-in to the new take on Vivaldi through Nigel Kennedy’s mind and ears. But in the end it all grew more favorable. Kennedy muses if Vivaldi would have approved? The 17th track, the official opening of Winter should be testament enough. I would guess he would. It includes harmonies and sonorities foreign to the composer, yes. But what results is still musically satisfying. I think any composer from 1730 would be tickled beyond compare to know that his music was still being performed and re-interpreted in 2015. To expect it to sound different? Why not?