Daily Bow: Nigel Kennedy Criticizes Modern Bach Performances


Nigel Kennedy Claims other Musicians Don’t Do Justice to Bach

Fresh off a performance of solo Bach at Royal Albert Hall, British violinist Nigel Kennedy is making headlines again. While still on the subject of Bach, the attention has turned to Kennedy’s opinions on his colleagues’ performances rather than reviews of his own. In the program notes for that same concert, the performer wrote that other musicians are failing to live up to the standard of complexity and beauty in Bach’s music. Rather than music with an emotional core, Kennedy hears soulless playing that he attributes to the growing popularity of period performance groups.

Accusing musicians of lacking passion and fire, Kennedy explained that “specialists” who call their music “authentic” are “unbelievably arrogant” because the “so-called authentic” interpretations use period instruments and would make composers “unbelievably blinkered.”

“Specialists are pushing Bach into a ghetto, which leaves many people feeling that Bach’s music is merely mathematical and technical. I see it as my job to try to keep Bach in the mainstream and present his music with, rather than without, its emotional core,” wrote Kennedy.

Adding to his already incendiary remarks, Kennedy claimed that Yehudi Menuhin was the best interpreter of Bach and hearing merely a few notes from his former teacher was worth more than any performance from a living violinist. Michael Garvey, the chief executive of the Academy of Ancient Muisc, disagreed, saying that his orchestra has “delivered amazingly passionate performances of [Baroque music] because we’ve understood how it should be performed.”

Is there a hard but honest truth to these critiques? Or should period performance ensembles lead the way in the modern musician’s approach to Bach? Comment below!



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2 Responses to Daily Bow: Nigel Kennedy Criticizes Modern Bach Performances

  1. Terry August 26, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    I gather blinkered means limited in scope. Nope, I don’t think that’s true, but I can see why someone might think that at first.

    I have a view on this that, admittedly, is highly influenced by a lecture/demo I heard some years ago by a Canadian baroque violinist, David Greenberg ( http://www.davidgreenberg.ca ). It made a lot sense to me; then and since.

    In his demo he played various phrases on both a baroque low-tension violin and a modern violin. No doubt about it, the modern violin can play louder. It can really sing at the height of intensity. On the other hand, it is definitely limited on how soft it can get without falling out of the Helmholtz motion sound. If one gets too soft, the emotional punch goes away, and instead, it becomes a just special effect, rather than an emotional statement.

    The baroque violin cannot get as loud, but when played loudly it still has the same emotional punch – just not as loud. However, the low tension allows one to get a very soft sound that is emotionally charged. The emotionally range of the baroque violin, which wasn’t built to be as loud as possible, ends up being considerably wider that a modern violin.

    Now, of course, the player has to understand the limitations and strengths of the baroque instrument. Also, the listener has to put on his baroque ears and not expect to hear 19th century concerto-style playing, but instead, emotion expressed in a gentler and more subtle way.

  2. Richard September 3, 2011 at 10:16 pm #

    I want to begin by saying that I think Kennedy is doing a fantastic job of trying “to keep Bach in the mainstream.” He performs with a great sense of vitality and spirit that is appealing to audiences from all around the world. I personally love attending his concerts because he is a great entertainer with a unique and engaging personality.
    He definitely has a point in asserting that period performance groups are living in the past, trying to recreate an “authentic” baroque performance time and time again. We can’t blame the performers for being historically informed, expressing what they believe to be the firmest intentions of the composers of the time. But if we are to continue to connect with mainstream audiences, we can’t be living in the past – we must allow ourselves to grow. Societies’ values have evolved over time, in line with changing musical aesthetics and goals of composers and performers. Similarly, string playing technique has come a long way since the time of the Baroque period, so why not open ourselves to all the possibilities and capabilities that we have available to us. I’m sure Bach would be more than thrilled to hear his music played by a modern string player with modern technique and style.
    So, this forces us performers to conjure up interpretations that are fresh and original and that are appealing to modern audiences. The difficulty lies in delivering a convincing performance that still retains a connection to the composer’s original intention. Kennedy does this well because one can still grasp a sense of the work’s overall architecture, its character, and most of all its underlying Baroque spirit. Who cares that he isn’t using period instruments or a lower tuning, because the spirit is still there. It is just like watching a modern appropriation of Shakespeare or a new staging of a Purcell opera, which take into account the updated values and appreciations of modern times.
    Kennedy is well-known for his strong opinions and incendiary remarks, so one mustn’t be too shocked when he flippantly criticizes Baroque specialists as “unbelievably arrogant” as well as his colleagues’ performances as soulless. This may come across as a little harsh, but the truth of the matter is that only a minority of audiences would truly be able to appreciate those “authentic” performances by period performance groups since only a minority of audiences have “educated ears.” I worry that if we restrict ourselves to playing in a proper authentic style all the time, then we will lose our audience.

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