Nigel Kennedy: Football Crazy Violin Mad

Classic FM catches up with the eccentric, outspoken and brilliant Nigel Kennedy.

A photoshoot and interview with Nigel Kennedy is like one of his concerts: anything could happen. Go with the flow, that’s my advice. So what if he turns up in his Aston Villa shirt with, worse, last season’s Rover sponsor logo splashed across the front? So what if he refuses to remove his sunglasses for the camera? Kennedy didn’t get where he is today by doing everyone’s bidding. So, make plans for Nigel but don’t expect him to follow them. 

"Look," he says, "there are so many 18-year-old artists behaving like the ambassador of Liechtenstein in their smart suits, does it really need me to carry on like that? I don’t think so." 

So the shirt stays. And the shades. 

And once you accept that Kennedy’s "no" means no, you can start enjoying yourself in the company of this utterly unique, robustly mouthed musical superstar. I ask him if there are any little Kennedys on the way following his marriage to long-time partner Agnieska.

 “I’m not answering that but tell you what,” he says, “I’ve been smoking wisteria. Those little blue leaves blow your head off.” 

Of course he’s joking – isn’t he? – and the thought of Kennedy lighting up a wisteria leaf is so far out (see, his patter’s catching) I’m reduced to tears. As a diversionary tactic it’s a killer; I never do find out if Kennedy’s nine-year-old son Sark is about to be joined by a brother or sister. 

Still, if it’s true, wisteria is an inspired choice of smoke here in the green and pleasant Malvern Hills heavy with Victorian villas, home to the Morgan sportscar company and resting place of Edward Elgar. Might it be his spiritual home? 

“Malvern has really helped me get into the vibe of Elgar’s music,” says Kennedy, “but Krakow is my true spiritual home with my two jazz bands, the Polish Chamber Orchestra which comes down from Warsaw and friends such as the Kroke band.” 

Anyone who has seen Kennedy perform Vivaldi with the PCO on their numerous UK tours will know just how at home the cheeky Brit is with his new Eastern European pals. There’s a vibe all right but one which, to this writer, threatens to turn some of their performances into farce. How does Kennedy reconcile the pursuit of musical truth with his obvious love for entertaining the crowd? 

“Being relaxed, rather than mimicking a monkey-suit guy doing what he does, makes me a better musician. Being myself is more conducive to me making great music.” 

Fair enough, but then Kennedy, whether out of a sincere belief or just for effect, sticks in the knife: “I don’t believe in the word ‘purist’ unless it applies to me. I’m a purist. The others are just theorists. They get their knowledge of performance from academics and as a consequence, they’re totally uptight about the way they play. 

“I consider Bach one of the greatest, if not the greatest, composer of all time. For people to think Bach’s music is dry or lacking in humanity I blame the theorists, the so-called purists. The real purists are people like Pablo Casals, Glenn Gould or Arthur Rubinstein, artists who were totally inside the soul of the composer.” 

I’m not convinced Kennedy’s dash-to-the-finish tempos and emphatic four-in-the-bar Vivaldi would impress the likes of Casals and Rubinstein. Although sensing I’m entering perilous waters I press the matter again. 

Without so much as a roll of the eyes he explains: “Music is something special to bring people together. You shouldn’t have this glass screen between you and the audience. You want to get the music on a bit in a way that people can understand, without compromising the musical integrity of the performance. 

“Mine is an approach that, works with all music. Vivaldi can be the most depressingly boring music or the most exciting. It’s totally up to the performer; he can give a miserable conservatoire-trained performance or he can get into the language of the composer and find out where that energy comes from. It’s about finding the soul of the composer and gravitating towards it.” 

It’s difficult to argue with that, especially since Kennedy’s new disc from EMI Classics demonstrates his gift for tapping into the souls of the great composers to perfection. Called Inner Thoughts, it’s a collection of slow movements culled from concertos by Brahms, Bruch, Elgar, Bach and Vivaldi that Kennedy has recorded over the years; the quintessential “chill-out” album, you might say. But doesn’t its “Best Of” format go against the Kennedy grain? Would a younger Kennedy have released such a disc? 

“People listen to classical music to find a bit of repose,” he says. “Nowadays, the public prefers an album that is all of one mood. This kind of playing – slow movements – is a facet of my music that hasn’t been noticed by the public so much. People associate me with all the happy Vivaldi stuff but my background is Menuhin who could really play this stuff.” 

Mention of Menuhin brings to mind another product of Kennedy’s alma mater, young Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti. Now signed to legendary label Deutsche Grammophon, Benedetti quit the Menuhin school early to build her career on her own terms. I wonder if Kennedy has any advice for the young prodigy. 

“Advice? I wouldn’t presume, but one thing I would ask is that her record company stops saying she chose her own repertoire for her disc.” 

He is referring to Benedetti’s very individual debut disc featuring Szymanowski’s rarely recorded Violin Concerto No.1 and a new work, Fragment For The Virgin, by John Tavener, specially commissioned for her. At its launch, Benedetti was quick to say that the choice of music for the disc was entirely her own. It’s the implication that she is alone among recording artists in choosing her own music that upsets Kennedy. 

“The fact is, most recording artists do choose their own music,” he says. “It’s insulting to the rest of us to suggest we don’t. It’s a bit stupid and immature and she should stop it.” 

OK – probably best to leave mention of other artists alone for a bit. I avoid asking him if he can offer Benedetti any tips on playing jazz, Kennedy’s passion, and instead ask how jazz has affected his own career. Badly, at first, it seems… 

“I was booked to play with Stéphane Grappelli at Carnegie Hall. My old teacher at Juilliard, Dorothy DeLay, told me that if I played the gig, no classical label would take me seriously. So I told Stéphane I couldn’t play. He was upset and so was I. I sat in his dressing room and drank his whisky while he played out front. But then, after the whisky, I staggered on and played some pretty good stuff. 

“As a result, CBS [Kennedy’s then record label] told my teacher they no longer needed my classical services. So she was right. It’s certainly the case that if you do classical first, no one can take that credibility from you. But I’ve delayed my first real jazz album for far too long and that’s something I’m going to be rectifying when I go to the US later this year to record with some American musicians – Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter… I’m looking forward to it.” 

Until then, there’s more jazz with his chums in Poland and, a couple of days after our interview, a jazz gig at the Glastonbury Festival. The fact is, Kennedy’s having a ball right now. Two recently released and successful Vivaldi discs under his belt, a concertos compilation coming out and a shot of Glastonbury to keep him grounded – life can’t be bad. 

“I’m very happy and I’m playing better than ever before,” he says. 

Just time to work in a final, tenuous Malvern/Elgar link? 

“Yeah, man. I remember setting off fireworks for him at his graveside with a bunch of friends. It was a cool thing to do. There’s something special that inspired him around here, that timeless thing.” 

Wisteria, perhaps?