Nigel Kennedy: The Four Seasons

This recording is endlessly surprising and sometimes delightful, cutting the Vivaldi classic to ribbons and reassembling it at will.
Nigel Kennedy
The New Four Seasons
Sony Classical

A musical rebel gives Vivaldi a postmodern makeover.

Any good interpreter of a set of pieces as thoroughly ingrained in the cultural consciousness as Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” has to decide how to pursue it: with traditional rigor or postmodern irreverence. Two guesses which approach orchestral music’s perennial bad boy Nigel Kennedy went with.

“Spring” is bright and flighty, the endlessly familiar melody rendered fresh with startling arrangements and notes that flit away at almost the instant they land. The “Transito” section hums with electronic instrumentation, putting one in mind of radio waves being sent into space. It’s about as far from a genteel baroque-era drawing room as you can get, accentuated with the thrum of muted horns and cool, jazzy piano chords. Intertwining melody lines on violin and theremin contrast historical and modern, and lovely, improvisational violin runs evoke dreamy midcentury French jazz.

“Nymphs and Shepherds Dance” gallops in as brashly as the section usually does, and the strings are lively and playful here—taking a short break for some pounding jazz drums and wild, barking vocals, before resuming the relatively “straight” interpretation. It’s an interesting contrast to draw between Vivaldi’s boundless elegance, his measured transmissions from an ordered cosmos, and the unhinged revels the music is ostensibly depicting. This piece shows a tension that animates the whole record: Is Vivaldi being mocked, or celebrated? How do we integrate the composer’s vision of abundance and wholeness into our fragmented modern world? Kennedy grapples with these questions throughout the course of the album, using modern instruments and styles to wring new meaning from the canonical composition.

“Summer” enters with yearning strings before Kennedy’s hasty, articulate sawing injects a sense of urgency. The jazz-infused double bass and drumming in this opening section make Vivaldi’s cascading sixteenth notes seem like uncanny intruders from another time. “Fear”, also from “Summer”, intersperses murmuring violins with screaming guitars and eerie spoken word interludes. “His Fears Are Only Too True” closes the section with driving drums and intermittent static and speech interrupting the mounting string crescendos.

“Autumn” opens with a big, surprising muted trumpet solo alongside the string melody, dollops of brass eloquently expressing the abundance of the season. It’s a creative subversion of listener expectations on an album full of them. “Pleasure of the Sweetest Slumber” uses synthesizers and vibraphone to dial up the heady, wine-drenched atmosphere, capturing the original concerto’s feeling of a bucolic, sun-dappled fantasy, wonderful because it is fleeting. Contemplative horns swirl alongside the strings, in no particular hurry to move the piece along. “Horns, Guns, and Dogs” arrives with the familiar stately fanfare augmented by an electric guitar, which suits the energy of the hunt surprisingly well. Vivaldi might not have written in a significant chunk of guitar shredding, but damn if it doesn’t work.

“Winter” enters with a frosty jazz prelude, and the screeching strings are backed by piano chords. Kennedy’s playing is rough and expressive—disheveled by design, but he tackles “Winter”’s opening barrage of notes with deadly accuracy. The next movement offers gentle, uptempo arpeggios and the occasional guitar strum, while Kennedy’s bow returns with searing intensity for “Walk on the Ice.”

This recording is endlessly surprising (and sometimes delightful), cutting the original to ribbons and reassembling it at will. Like Vivaldi’s composition, it is brisk and dramatic, preserving the feeling of constant change in the natural world. As Kennedy’s creative arrangements and startling instrumentation show, such change is inevitable. Purists might balk at Kennedy’s additions, but his smart interpretations breathe new relevance into a beloved piece of music.

RATING 8 / 10
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