By Cristina Schreil
When violinist Nigel Kennedy recorded the concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1989, the commercial hit became for many a staple recording. Sparkling and vivacious, it also presented “every technique” Kennedy knew, foregrounding intriguing elements such as harmonics.
Released October 30, Vivaldi: The New Four Seasons, keeps that spirit at the core. But, the concertos get the 21st-century treatment. Joining Vivaldi’s narrative journey are several contemporary sounds. Kennedy plays with his Orchestra of Life, comprised of young musicians, drum programming by Massive Attack’s Damon Reece and a vocal quartet. Kennedy doesn’t snag as much of the spotlight, but exudes the same pleasing vitality.
There are 21 movements, with Vivaldi’s three-movements-per-concerto structure reworked. Kennedy added enchanting “transitoire” movements throughout; they are curious and atmospheric. The one capping off the album dissolves sweetly.
The overlaid contemporary textures don’t always blend perfectly, as in a precisely edited mashup. It’s more of a tradeoff, wherein modern elements interrupt, then recede. This can be jarring. In “Summer: 10 His Fears Are Only Too True,” a grating electronic buzz and deliberate chants roar amid a splendid rendition of the concerto’s Presto. It’s as if the Matrix is glitching. The approach may be polarizing; traditionalists may wonder at the point.
The album still stems, however, from Vivaldi at its core. It grabs hold of and amplifies the suite’s imaginative spirit. Spring’s rock-laced first movement—renamed “1 Melodious Incantation”—features actual bird chirps and a woman calling, “Tweet, tweet.” In the peppy and exuberant “Spring: 5 Nymphs and Shepherds Dance,” human voices bark, yelp, and hiss as if animals roused from winter lethargy. In a spin on the Summer concerto’s Adagio, haunting vocalists chant suddenly. An electric cacophony almost plucked from a pagan rock festival accompanies.
Particularly wonderful is the reimagined Allegro of the Autumn concerto. A jazzy trumpet melody and hip-swinging percussion kick off as the orchestra unleashes Vivaldi’s notes with revitalizing speed. It’s a rich blend. Kennedy’s solo is brisk and boisterous. And the Winter concerto, now in six movements, is layered and dramatic. As a wintry mix famously pelts down, Kennedy’s lyrical solo summons up the warm fingers of a fire.
In releasing the album, Kennedy insisted that forward-thinking Vivaldi would have loved to compose with today’s resources. No one’s to say for sure, but it’s an absorbing listen nonetheless.