Was I blinking away tears of laughter or of joy; I hardly knew, as I listened to my second replay of Nigel Kennedy’s The New Four Seasons but I was evidently moved in ways I was at a loss to explain. Yet, as I listened to the heady heights of “Summer” I knew I was being over spilled with all the gathered emotion of something newly realised as lost and then, in the same instance, found but the laughter through tears was no irreverence at this new interpretation. How else are you supposed to react to a reinvention of something once, apparently, cast in stone to now include electric guitar, bird song, bizarre voices, cafe jazz and, yes, a didgeridoo. To paraphrase Kennedy, each and every performance of music warrants the inclusion of whatever sounds and embellishments are considered to enhance and convey the mood of the piece at the time of playing and he takes full advantage of everything he has at his disposal for this one.
Let me take a step back to explain why I think this reinvention of an “old” piece of music was affecting me so profoundly; lets rewind the clock to 1989 when he released his seminal recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, still held up as a milestone interpretation of the work. Actually, just a little later than that – let’s pause at the early to mid-nineties – when I owned this recording and played it a lot as “working” music at the point when I was first setting myself up as self-employed from home. It accompanied me being in the thick of my first marriage, my first stab at life, a first attempt to create a life that felt orderly, desirable, whole and something like “what I wanted’ but was it? No, not at all; looking back it felt like a self-created prison cell. Countless isolated hours were spent working to deadlines, to that piece of music, in my back-office, waving my arms around in mock conduction of ‘Summer’ (as I defy anyone not to do). You could say, without even meaning to, I had learned it by heart. Then, as those years crumbled and faded away, that same piece of music became somehow the antithesis of everything I wanted to listen to; stuffy and staid, I stopped hearing its lyrical beauty and it became the doctor’s surgery and bank “waiting music” at the end of the phone line as I joined yet another long queue to try and speak to somebody with “Four Seasons” on loop…you get the picture.
For years, I neatly side-stepped it – would actively flip forwards on my iPod when it came up and, in the end, removed it altogether; listening to those opening notes would set my teeth on edge. Meanwhile my life relaxed, became flux, re-knitted together in another format with far more embellishment, many more crazy-creative flourishes, I found a different kind of love, a new world to live in, more colours to play with, a whole different tempo. Fast forward to 2015.
I hardly knew what to expect when I played The New Four Seasons for the first time but those opening “teeth on edge” notes were not the first thing I heard but an electric guitar riff that made it seem more like the opening to a Mike Oldfield extravaganza. The first ride through was a blast – I grinned, I laughed, I whooped with delight at some of the surprises. It was the second play through that really moved me. I realised how I had, inadvertently, lost something…put it down along the side of the road in some reckless moment of wanting rid of everything to do with “the past”…and, now NK had reunited me with it, I was initially lost for words but the tears welling in my eyes said it all and this post quickly followed. What was I hearing to generate this reaction? Well, the most exquisite aspects of the music – rendered (like nobody else ever does) vivaciously, movingly, as though the sounds caress your cells – were still there and then a whole new layer of bizarre genius that brings the work back to life in a way that feels like the very mirror of how my own ‘new’ life compares to that of twenty years ago – more colour, more expression, more layers, more eccentricity, more spontaneity, quite simply MORE.
Official reviews of any depth seem quite thin on the ground so far but the public response speaks for itself – a flurry of effusive reviewers have spilt their delight on to Amazon already (and yes, a few of the nay-sayers that were inevitably going to pop up when someone takes on the establishment and “the way things have always been done”). In short, a lot of people really love it and not just your average “classical” music listeners; and isn’t that what NK does best on the back of the cross-over, no holds barred territory that he inhabits, breaking down stereotypes, having some fun, bringing different groups of people together and inspiring a whole new audience along the way. Taken from the horse’s mouth, in his interview with the Independent in 2009 “Music is the best way to overcome differences. It brings people together like nothing else. Because music takes place in the ‘now’, it gets you away from all your problems. While you’re making music or listening to it, it doesn’t leave room for anything else.”
I’m lucky enough to have seen NK perform twice in the flesh – once at the WOMAD festival partnered with Kroke (the equally eccentric klezmer ensemble from Poland, another favourite of mine) and then a few years later at Henley Festival from our deckchairs near the front of the stage, giving his own spin to the music of Duke Ellington. Both were utterly unforgettable performances on account of his leap-about-the-stage vitality, his mad-hairdo eccentricity, yes his relentless swearing and his sheer joie de vive – crazy artistic genius at its best. The encores just went on and on, you can feel how he transfers that electricity to the crowds. His most recent offering was the Jimi Hendrix project that also had its roots in his 1990s preoccupations. It thrills me that he regards the art world as such an open resource of cross-pollination, not a group of tightly controlled domains with neat picket fences all around them – after all, art is not, not should it ever be, set in hallowed stone or neat boxes. To quote the description on Amazon, this is “Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, but not as we’ve known them. The rhythms, the tonal palette and the instrumentation are different, and the introduction of voices and electricity clearly move the piece into a different dimension. But creativity means change, and the last thing Nigel Kennedy will ever do is stand still“.
This work is considerably longer than the original and the very fact he dares to add his own, newly created, transitions to a work as “hallowed” as The Four Seasons feels like a breakthrough, a relief – after all, is it not a truism of our times that none of the seasons are predictable anymore anyway; everything is up for change, for expansion, for reinvention, taking the best of the old and building upon it in new and surprising ways. I find I want to say, the music is not sacrosanct; it is our creative urge and the need to allow that free rein that is. NK has dared to show that music is certainly not sacrosanct and all the better for it; its as though our strictly demarcated four seasons have suddenly found room for something more, their edges blurred and our experience of them reinvented. I newly realise how the ingrained familiarity with this piece of music served me so well, now that I have witnessed the complete softening of it. Because, for anyone as deeply familiar with every note and twiddle of the original as I am, it is then possible to be left awestruck by the demonstration (in ways that words would struggle to convey; music holds that particular gift) of how something, apparently, “set in stone”, in all its intricate complexity, can be played with anew, upgraded, expanded, evolved and added to in a way that it becomes much more than the sum of its parts. I declare myself awestruck.