Nigel Kennedy’s recording was released on 25th September 1989 and went on to become one of the best-selling classical albums of all-time, selling over three million copies around the world. Originally recorded in November 1986 in the Church of St John-at-Hackney, London, it was a recording that w
Nigel Kennedy’s recording was released on 25th September 1989 and went on to become one of the best-selling classical albums of all-time, selling over three million copies around the world. Originally recorded in November 1986 in the Church of St John-at-Hackney, London, it was a recording that would achieve unprecedented public and media attention and change the course of music history. Vivaldi’s work, 12 movements in short three-minute bursts, was tailor-made for commercial radio. It was the first time that commercial pop marketing techniques had been used in the classical world and the first time that Nigel was unleashed on the media.
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 bestselling classical recording ever.
In 1989, the classical music industry came to terms with life after Herbert von Karajan. His death on 16 July 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. He left the hothouse environment at Stoke d’Abernon with his individuality intact and came to the notice of Simon Foster, the A&R manager at EMI’s budget classical label, Classics for Pleasure. It was Foster who championed Nigel’s recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto, made at a fortnight’s notice in 1984. Gramophone magazine gave it the ‘Record of the Year’ Award, and it received a gong from the early years of the Brit Awards for ‘Best Classical Recording’.
On 24 April 1986, Kennedy stepped up from the mid-price Eminence label to sign an exclusive contract with EMI Records UK, albeit in the face of some scepticism from the internal International Classical Division. It was suggested by one senior executive that no one called Nigel would ever make it. ‘What? Like Adrian?’ came the reply from another executive, and the objection was not raised again.
The Wogan Show and other TV appearances introduced Nigel to a wider audience. Six months later, Nigel began recording this CD. Wider fame arrived with a concert in aid of The Prince’s Trust in July 1989 attended by Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Nigel played the last movement of ‘Summer’ with the CBSO conducted by Sir George Martin, one-time producer to The Beatles. 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.
As in concert, TV – especially the chatshow medium – showed Nigel to be the Charlie Chaplin of the violin, with a talent, even a genius to communicate to the broadest of audiences with his violin. 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. Nigel and his Four Seasons could be heard and seen everywhere. 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. Audiences in cultures as different as Australia, Germany and Japan lapped it up. 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. […]