Nigel Kennedy/ Orchestra of Life; Sir Charles Mackerras Memorial Concert; Jonas Kaufmann | Classical review

Royal Albert Hall; Royal Festival Hall; Wigmore Hall – all London

It's not often you see a violinist welcome concert latecomers with a great big kiss, but when Nigel Kennedy's in charge, anything can happen. Besides, classical music's great iconoclast had to rescue the public-relations disaster that had been his Birmingham appearance earlier in the week, so the smackers planted on both cheeks of an unsuspecting woman looked like a public call for forgiveness.

Catcalls and slow handclaps had greeted him in Brum where he was half an hour late coming on to the platform. Half an hour is nothing in rock gig terms, of course, but this is where Kennedy's admirable drive to loosen the formality of concert-going can go terribly wrong; he can misjudge his audience. While they adore his dazzling facility with the violin, they have trains to catch and become restless when he turns up late or when, in a piece they all know back-to-front (such as Vivaldi's Four Seasons), he slips off-piste into an extended, self-indulgent, musical soliloquy.

Last Wednesday, London was in the grip of a tube strike so a late start was a courtesy to an audience struggling to get to the Albert Hall to hear his eight-concerto, all-Vivaldi programme. People were still straggling in through the first half, prompting that kiss and all manner of cheery greetings: "Welcome, mate. It's all right; you've missed two concertos, but there's a lot more coming up!"

It's all part of Nige the showman's lumpy mix of music hall, jazz club (Dvorák on harmonica, anyone?) and rock concert, all chivvied along with lashings of bonhomie but set within the context of fiercely disciplined music-making. This year he is proud to show off his new creation, the Orchestra of Life, a hand-picked ensemble of young, decorative, richly talented Polish players who share his enthusiasm for wildfire tempi, exaggerated dynamics and quirky instrumentation (acoustic guitar, light percussion, occasional slap bass).

He's generous with his tributes to their playing – and to their looks: "I'm surrounded by beautiful women," he cries, prompting the unworthy thought that his Orchestra of Life might better be titled his Orchestra of Mid-Life Crisis…

It was all rather different over at the Royal Festival Hall the next night, where a packed house had gathered for a memorial to Sir Charles Mackerras, who died in July. His favourite British orchestras, the Philharmonia and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, naturally chose a programme by composers most closely associated with the great conductor: Handel, Mozart and Janácek.

It turned into an evening of pure delight: Stephen Devine displayed immaculate precision in directing the OAE from the keyboard in Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, a work Mackerras first recorded on period instruments in 1959 – years ahead of what is now standard practice. (He would have chuckled at the occasional waywardness of the recalcitrant natural horns. "Playing a period instrument," he said, "is like driving a car and having to double declutch.")

No such problems for the Philharmonia's modern horns, which placed a beguiling blush of sound behind both Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante K364 (fabulously played by Julian Rachlin and Lawrence Power) and a dynamic reading of Dvorák's brilliant seventh symphony, under the young Czech conductor, Tomás Netopil, a work the young Mackerras was poring over in a London cafe in 1948 when he learned that study grants were available in Prague. So began his love affair with Czech music and his devotion to Janácek in particular. The final scene from The Cunning Little Vixen was, his nephew the conductor Alexander Briger told us, Mackerras's favourite piece. Sir Thomas Allen sang those closing pages with an aching recognition of their message: the vixen is dead, the gamekeeper will die soon, but their young will live on. The glorious cycle of life will continue.

In the five years since he last sang lieder in London, the tenor Jonas Kaufmann has become an international star, gaining a reputation as the Wagnerian of the moment, so his appearance at the Wigmore Hall was eagerly awaited, not just because he has a wondrous voice but because a recital is the supreme test of any artist; stripped of operatic trappings, a singer is totally exposed.

But exposed or not, you still have a job to do: tell a story. And what a story-teller we had in Kaufmann. He's 40, yet still managed to convince us he was the naive apprentice of Schubert's song-cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, his bright optimism darkening to dissolution and despair as his rejection by his boss's daughter propels him towards an absurdly romantic death.

Kaufmann has an astonishing voice: rich and round as a baritone's in the lower register, yet able to fly with ease to sweet, mellifluous, heart-stopping heights, as in the closing lines of both "Am Feierabend" and "Der Neugierige". That same ability to sustain the smallest thread of pianissimo cast a chilling spell when, in "Die liebe Farbe", he shrouded his voice to sing of death while the superb Helmut Deutsch kept the millwheel turning in his beautifully sensitive, many-coloured accompaniment. A magical partnership.


Stephen Pritchard

The GuardianTramp

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