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Bach: a personal view by Nigel Kennedy.

From Prom 31 Official Program.     Saturday 6 August 2011 - 10:00pm

When my manager, Terri Robson, told me of Roger Wright’s proposal that I perform a Late Night Prom completely alone playing the solo violin music of J. S. Bach, my reaction was, “Well, that evening won’t exactly be a holiday – but it’s a challenge I can’t refuse.”  It’s challenges of this order that give my schedule a bit more focus and a chance to push myself further than I otherwise might. 

Chris Christodoulou/BBC


Another aspect of taking on this concert is that a great George Enescu put Bach’s solo violin music back on the radar for all following generations of violinists.  His pupil Yehudi Menuhin subsequently championed this amazing music and his support, the gigs I played of Bach’s music with him (when I was his pupil) and my ever-continuing devotion to Bach’s music leave me feeling that I have a responsibility to play it wherever possible and as often as possible.  Specialists are pushing Bach into a rarefied and effete ghetto which leaves many people feeling that Bach’s music is merely mathematical and technical – I see it as my job to try and keep Bach in the mainstream and present his music with, rather than without, its emotional core.


Of course, when trying to create a positive situation, one has to take note of negative as well as positive factors in one’s environment.  The same goes for creating a world within interpretation: the prevalent fashions of the time have to be wiped off one’s agenda.  For instance, in the real world every individual thinks that they must have a computer and many families seem to think they must have more than one television but, in my opinion, less gets done nowadays and families are not as happy as they were before these inventions were created.  The beauty of the interpretational world is that you can get rid of negative factors like these, whereas in reality one cannot purge the world of computers and TVs, which have become as strong an addition as to any illegalized drug.


Although Bach’s music is so positive, there are a few negative factors in Bach interpersonal environment that I have noticed and that need fixing!  These lead to my take on:




As far as I can see, this demise occurred largely during the 1970s.  In my opinion three horrible things happened:


1 The New York School

These musicians mainly emanated from the Galamian school.  Fantastic technique, great sound projection and a beautiful tone were all they had to offer.  What they lacked was rhythmic ingenuity, dynamic sophistication and architectural awareness.  What seemed to be most pervasive was self-satisfied smugness of sound, which was supposed to make up for (or hide) all these other deficiencies.  Following generations did, however, offer us Peter Zazofsky and Lara St John, both of whom have a wonderful and unique understanding of Bach’s music.


2 The Russian School

After Nathan Milstein, in my opinion, is a giant void when looking for Russian violinists who can interpret Bach.  Whether this is down to that strange brand of imperial communism that tried at all cost to prove the superiority of all things Russian (at the expense, even, of the rest of the Soviet Union), I’ll never know.  From what I have heard of the Russian school, they are unable to differentiate between Bach and Paganini, with the result being that these philosophical masterpieces end up sounding like shallow showpieces designed merely to show off technical mastery of the violin.  This interpretational deficiency seems even to have had an unfortunate side effect in that many central German composers seem to have been struck off the Russian music academy curriculum, leaving many students with huge blind spots in what should be basic repertoire.  When checking the Russian violin school, it would be easy to believe that nothing happened before Mozart and that classical music possibly didn’t really get going until Shostakovich.


3 “Authentic” Period Specialists

Even the description of oneself as being “authentic” is unbelievably arrogant – and, in the case of so-called “period” performances, misguided.  How can music, or any art, be authentic if it is stripped of passion and is made instead into an exercise of painfully self-conscious technique?  Music of such depth and pathos as Bach’s certainly doesn’t benefit from such treatment – and, while it is beneficial to eradicate the bad habits emanating from the excessive influence of such Romantic-era figures such as Joachim, surely such an exercise is pointless if these old mannerisms are replaced with new ones that are even worse.


I have to admit that the primary motivation for my 1989 recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was to offer a dynamic performance with contrast as an alternative to the lugubrious tedium I perceived in the interpretation of the “authentic” school.  The immature and desperate claims made by the record companies selling these “authentic” performances could also be gone into at considerable length – but Bach showed great mercy in his music, so I will not go into that tedious and superficial subject tonight!


Chris Christodoulou/BBC



Pablo Casals

All right, so Casals didn’t play the violin!  However, his performances of Bach’s solo cello Suites are the antithesis of the vanity and complacency of modern playing.  He didn’t go for pure beauty of sound – in fact, if the music dictated an ugly sound (as in the first movement of the C minor Cello Suite), he would put his ego second in order to achieve the depth and understanding required by the music.  The results are inspired and would have you believe that God exists.  Only an idiot would not learn from his performances.


Glenn Gould

OK, so this guy also did not play the violin, but Glen Gould’s discipline, freedom and inspiration in Bach are also essential listening (and learning) and are proof that the “authentic” instrument of  Bach’s time (the harpsichord) only comes off as second best when searching for the most complete realizations of Bach’s keyboard music.


Arthur Grumiaux

Such realization of musical architecture is rare among violinists, most of whom have little appreciation of harmony, structure or anything other than melody and fast fingers.  If you want the best possible recording of the Ciaccona that I’m playing tonight, Grumiaux’s is the one to get.


Nathan Milstein

Wonderful creative intonation, delicacy and sound colours – but maybe just possibly a little lightweight compared with Grumiaux.


Sándor Végh

The folk imagery and the organ-like harmonies of Bach come alive under Végh’s custody.


Yehudi Menuhin

Bach speaks through Menuhin’s violin – also, four melodic notes from Yehudi are worth more than a thousand from any of our living violinists.


Johanna Martzy

At times Martsy’s over –frenetic vibrato and some killer ritardandos at the end of movements put me on the verge of discounting her interpretations but the sense of line she achieves is just so electrifying and magnetic that you cannot tear yourself away.


Isaac Stern

The most supreme of all supreme violinists, Isaac Stern never recorded solo Bach but if he had – with his laser-like honesty, his expressive intonation and his unique understanding of structure and harmonic tension – you could throw all the other versions into the bin.  (I remember during the time I was playing and getting advice from Mr Stern that, on one occasion, it was me doing all the talking for at least 10 minutes when I was trying to convince him to record these masterpieces.  The loss is not his but ours, in that what would have been the greatest interpretation of these works out of all of them, never got recorded.)




1  It’s lonely waiting in the wings on your own – at least, I imagine it is.  I’ve never done it before! (Normally I have my band or an orchestra to mess around with immediately prior to a gig.)


2  The violin is a high-pitched instrument.  I don’t want to leave my friends in the audience bemoaning the lack of bass.  One of the amazing things about the solo works of Bach is their complete self-sufficiency but the harmonic bass-lines are often neglected in modern performance.


3  The first movements of the D minor Partita are like a complete work in themselves, but then comes the incredible stamina-testing Ciaccona.  I must remember that the speed of each movement has to sound natural, not only in its own right but also in the bigger picture of the whole work.  This in particular involves the Corrente and Giga being played with energy and forward momentum, because of the grounded nature of the movements like the Sarabanda and indeed the Ciaccona.


4  Remember that these movements derive from the inspiration of French and Italian dance forms of the time.


5  Get to bed early…YOU’VE GOT TO BE JOKING!


Nigel Kennedy




I would like to pay tribute and give thanks to both Yehudi Menuhin and Peter Norris, without whom I think I would probably be ill-equipped to deal with performing this music tonight.