August 18, 2014

A trip in time: Nigel Kennedy and Vivaldi's Four Seasons 25 years on

How this revolutionary 1989 album became the Guinness Book of Records' best-selling classical recording ever.

It was a phenomenon waiting to happen. Nigel Kennedy’s recording of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons sold over three million copies around the world. It topped the UK classical chart for over a year and entered the Guinness Book of Records as the best-selling classical recording ever. And now this legendary album is available in a 25th Anniversary Special Edition with the original ground-breaking recording, the award-winning film on DVD, images, memorabilia and more.

The year was 1989 and the world was in a state of flux. Ayatollah Khomeini died, George Bush Snr succeeded Ronald Reagan as the 41st President of the United States and the Chinese government declared martial law in Beijing after students refused to budge from Tiananmen Square. The classical music industry came to terms with life after Herbert von Karajan. His death on 16 July 1989 marked the passing from the world of maestros to that of megastars.

Pundits had predicted a classical music boom, courtesy of the new digital sound carrier, the compact disc, but no one could foresee a world in which Three Tenors, glamorous violinists and Welsh mezzo-sopranos would dominate the pop charts. And then there was Nigel Kennedy, a pupil of the Yehudi Menuhin School whose star was about to rise. 

Producer Andrew Keener recalls the atmosphere during the Vivaldi recording dataes: "Floppy hair for the 1984 Elgar Concerto sessions, spiky and gelled for Vivaldi two years later. The trademark yee-haw footstamp, already part of Nigel’s Vivaldi roadshow was, however, yet to make its recorded debut – for which the engineer Mike Clements and I breathed a soft prayer of thanks. Nevertheless there were fireworks. At Nigel’s request, we returned to the un-soundproofed St John-at-Hackney one evening some months after the original sessions to record his new thoughts on the slow movements, and industrial-strength bangers and Catherine wheels in a nearby park vied with Nigel’s sul ponticello and distant dive-bomber effects."

Wider fame arrived with a concert in aid of The Prince’s Trust in July 1989 attended by Prince Charles and Princess Diana. After the concert, the BBC Radio 1 presenter Annie Nightingale introduced Nigel to the attending Royals and asked if Nigel should teach the violin to William and Harry. Diana smiled. "I wouldn’t let you within a million miles of them." Nigel, unperturbed, replied: "Shocking, your Royal Monstrette."

A month later, the EMI recording of The Four Seasons was released on LP, cassette and CD. The form of Vivaldi’s concerto cycle – twelve movements in short three-minute bursts – was ideal for commercial radio. It was the first time that pop marketing techniques had been used on a classical release. A single (of Summer) was released, huge street posters pasted up, and 30-second ads ran on radio and (unusually for classical music) TV.

After one week, the album shot to No.1 in the UK classical chart. Of more commercial value, it punctured the Top 75 pop album chart. The subsequent film of The Four Seasons and its TV broadcast in the Christmas break pulled the album towards the Top 30, and it eventually peaked at No.3. It was reported that two copies were purchased every minute. A sell-out tour across the UK gave audiences the first chance to see Nigel in person accompanied by the English Chamber Orchestra. These were no ordinary classical concerts. Nigel spoke to a younger audience, engaged them in the music and then, he’d close his eyes and play.

Nigel’s combination of genius, cheek, novelty, energy and fun travelled well. He bucked the system. Sometimes juvenile, even stubborn and difficult, he was always engaging and challenging. He was, and still is, a musician happy with Elgar and Zappa, Miles Davis and Match of the Day. Like Fritz Kreisler before him, Nigel brought an enjoyment of classical music to all, not just the elite.

In April 1990, Nigel came to the end of a triumphant UK tour with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. He spoke to the audience: "Hey, just like to say thanks, you know, for making it such a great evening, all you cats and these monsters are the best and it’s been great doing the tour, so thank you all. And who else can I thank? Mum, thanks for letting me out of your womb. Like, who else?...EMI, thanks for getting the record out to the monsters and thanks whoever bought it because you’re helping us do something with music which shouldn’t be allowed. Thanks a lot."

©Barry McCann, 2009

Nigel Kennedy: Vivaldi's Four Seasons 25th Anniversary Edition is out 1st September.