Get Nigel Kennedy's Four Seasons CD FREE in today's Mail On Sunday

From JO KNOWSLEY in Melbourne

Last updated at 00:04 09 March 2008

Nigel Kennedy dons a sloppy cardigan, grabs a china mug steaming with hot, black tea and ambles genially down the stairs into the auditorium from the stage.

The cardigan tops an unlikely ensemble of knee-length khaki shorts, a long grey T-shirt and socks in traffic-light colours – one orange, one lime green.

The hair, too, is vintage Kennedy – hedgehog-spiky in a cut reminiscent of Dennis The Menace.

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Pioneer: 'No-one had tried to make classical music truly popular before,' says Nigel Kennedy

If his image wasn't plastered all over the Hamer Hall in Melbourne, Australia, where he was performing last week, he could easily be mistaken for a cleaner.

"F***ing beau'i'ful – cheers, mate," he tells the musicians, as he waves them off for their dinner break, after an afternoon's rehearsal of Beethoven.

To me, he says simply: "Hi, mate," before clutching my hand and giving it a

swift kiss. "Shall we sit in the back row and talk?"

Such quaint chivalry is not quite what you expect from Kennedy, who will make a long-awaited return to the London stage this month when he performs at the South Bank's Royal Festival Hall, and later at the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in July.

The world-class violinist's recording of Vivaldi's Four Seasons earned him a place in the Guinness Book Of Records. It is the best-selling classical album of all time and next week Mail on Sunday readers will receive the complete original recording absolutely free.

Kennedy is almost as well known for shunning classical-music traditions, his expletive-strewn "mockney" language and his shambolic attire, as he is for his fabulous, if sometimes controversial, interpretations of classical music.

Now 51, happily married to Polish arts student Agnieszka and the father of an 11-year-old boy, Sark Yves Amadeus Kennedy (from a previous relationship), Kennedy claims he has mellowed – at least off the concert stage.

"My wife would say I'm a better person," he says.

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Gift: Nigel Kennedy's version of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons is free with today's Mail on Sunday

"I guess when you are sort of famous, you start to think that all your opinions are important. I certainly did. I was very bolshie. A bit like a socialist Margaret Thatcher.

"Now I'll listen to other people... well, for at least 30 seconds."

Yet it was his certainty about how classical music should be presented which, as a young and brilliant violinist, propelled him on to the world stage.

"It just struck me that the Four Seasons had so much vibrancy and energy that it should appeal to young people," he says.

"It had 12 tracks, each about three minutes long, which were perfect in terms of the format of music and popular culture, just what young people were used to.

"No one had tried to make classical music truly popular before – this was 1989, before Pavarotti did anything similar.

"I talked to my record company and they said, 'Oh, all right, we might sell 50,000 copies'. In the end, we sold two million."

The album remained in the UK classical charts for more than a year, with one person buying the album every 30 seconds.

Kennedy was hailed as "visionary" and was rarely out of the papers.

So how did it feel to be the architect of a whole new fashion in performing and marketing classical music?

"It felt f***ing great," Kennedy says.

"It felt great to communicate music and share it with the type of people most of those in the classical hierarchy would want to lock out of the concert chamber.

"Yeah, it felt like I'd made a breakthrough."

The great Yehudi Menuhin, who trained the child prodigy Kennedy personally at his school, would not have been surprised.

But Kennedy's unorthodox, even abrasive, approach to what he referred to as the "stuffed-shirts world" of classical music earned him almost as many critics as fans.

The fame also threatened to put him on a gilded treadmill continually performing the ever-popular Four Seasons.

So, in the early Nineties, he made another controversial decision: to withdraw completely from public performances for five years.

"That break brought me freedom," he says.

"I was getting carried away on a tide of other people's expectations."

When he returned, he received an award for Outstanding Contribution to British Music at the Brit Awards in 1997, but just as his audiences, and even his critics, were getting used to his style, Kennedy shifted direction again, releasing improvisational recordings of Jim Hendrix compositions.

Today, his passion is jazz. He has a jazz quintet in Krakow, Poland, where he lives for part of the year (he also has a house in Malvern, Worcestershire,

near his son Sark) and he has played at Ronnie Scott's club in Soho and the Blue Note in Tokyo.

"Today I'm more excited, if possible, about my music – classical and jazz – because my work is taking me ever further from the conservatoire," he says.

"I spent all those years learning the rules – the structure – and now I can enjoy breaking them.

"I have always tried to break down the barriers sometimes associated with classical music.

"I didn't start out with the objective of shocking the classical music

world. I just have a bulls**t-o-meter that works overtime.

"I wasn't trying to shock with the way I dress or my interpretations. I was trying to correct what I saw as an imbalance in the way music was presented.

"Just because you're playing music written hundreds of years ago, you don't have to look like you've been buried with the composer.

"If the zealots hadn't been there with their sometimes silly protocol, then I

wouldn't have felt I had to put it right.

"I think they found it embarrassing that someone came along with my philosophy and that I was right."

He retains his sense of the anarchic by screaming at his orchestras before each performance, in a manner more like that of a football coach.

"We have a little shouting session," he says with a grin.

"I yell: 'Get ready to rumble. Give it large.' It's great to get the whole team wound up."

But if his reinterpretting of music and reinventing his career has kept him at the top of his field, meeting Agnieszka at a party in Malvern ten years ago changed Kennedy's world.

"She's very grounded," he says.

"She's not carried away or infatuated by fame. And my son is wonderful. I make sure I see him ten days a month.

"He likes my music, but he likes the jazz band best."

Kennedy's Australian performances are the start of a major international tour also taking in Europe, Turkey and America.

His only constant companions on the road are his violins: "Kylie" (after Kylie Minogue – "small, beautiful and perfectly formed"), an 18th Century, £1million Del Gesu Guarneri made in Italy, and two younger violins (one an electronic model).

Aside from his time with Agnieszka and Sark, Kennedy's life currently revolves almost solely around work – he is also artistic director of the Polish Chamber Orchestra – and he has a number of new projects on the go.

He jogs, rides his bicycle and is so obsessed with his music, "I find it

hard to get enough sleep".

In his own way, Kennedy is quintessentially British and a surprising upholder of old-fashioned courtesy and standards.

The stag nights and drunkenness of British tourists in Krakow infuriate him – "men and women p***ing in the street".

The Poles, he says, still have a defined sense of manners and etiquette. And it is clear he likes that.

I conclude our meeting by asking how he'd like to be remembered.

"Only by my close family, really – as a good man, a good dad. And, I

mean, then there's the music. That'll last, I think."