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French Cello Concertos
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Cello concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op.33 (1872)
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Cello concerto in D minor (1876)
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)
Cello concerto No. 1, Op.136 (1934)
Jacques OFFENBACH (1819-1880)
Les larmes de Jacqueline (c. 1853)
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Méditation from Thaïs (1894)
Hee-Young Lim (cello)
London Symphony Orchestra/Scott Yoo
rec. 2018, Abbey Road, Studios, London
SONY CLASSICAL 80358118425 [75.40]

On Sony Classical cellist Hee-Young Lim has launched her first album - a French-themed mainly romantic programme comprising three cello concertos and a pair of showpieces for cello and orchestra. Born in South Korea Lim studied in Korea, USA, France and Germany. In 2016 Lim was appointed principal cellist of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra leaving the following year. I notice that Lim in 2018 became cello professor at the Beijing Central Conservatory of Music. This is a début album to be proud of and Lim has chosen a captivating mix of celebrated works and lesser known repertoire. Saint-Saëns’ first Cello concerto and Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs are two enduringly popular scores much loved by audiences. By contrast the cello concertos by Lalo and Milhaud, although high quality, are relatively unfamiliar repertoire together with Offenbach’s Les larmes de Jacqueline a work I was hearing for the first time.

One of the best loved Romantic concertos in the repertory, Saint-Saëns composed his Cello concerto No.1 in 1872. Dedicatee, cellist Auguste Tolbecque premièred the A minor concerto in 1873 at a Paris Conservatoire concert. Bursting with ideas and melody it’s far more frequently played and recorded than the composer’s Cello concerto No. 2 written some thirty years later. A repertoire staple for cellists, of the numerous recordings probably the best known and still essential for collectors are the 1968 account from Jacqueline Du Pré with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim on EMI and the 1974 account with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Louis Frémaux on EMI. In resolute and exuberant form, Lim, in the squally and highly melodic opening movement Allegro non troppo, produces a joyously lyrical mood. Exquisite in the middle movement Allegretto con moto is the profound weeping quality that Lim develops. Celebratory and passionate at turns in the Finale Lim revels in the bittersweet drama. Particularly in its low register the resonant, mellow timbre of Lim’s cello sounds glorious. Certainly, Lim’s performance can stand comparison with the outstanding 2013 Salle Pleyel, Paris account played by Gautier Capuçon with the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France under Lionel Bringuier on Erato Warner.

In my view Édouard Lalo’s reputation doesn’t match up to the level his talent deserves and currently his works are often overlooked. His most celebrated work is his Symphonie espagnole but in truth I rarely see it concert programmes. Lalo wrote his cello concerto in 1876 in collaboration with the Belgian cellist Adolphe Fischer who introduced the work the following year at the Cirque d’hiver, Paris. There are a number of recordings of the concerto most notably the 1962 account played by János Starker with Stanislaw Skrowaczewski under Antal Dorati on Mercury Living Presence. Substantial at over fourteen minutes is the opening movement, a serious and determined Prélude, with Lim accentuating a deep yearning quality. A strong sense of reflection is created by Lim in the Intermezzo with the longing disposition of the Prélude never far away. Lim shines in the Finale, a tense and dramatic Andantino section, which soon develops into energetic Allegro Presto of distinctly Spanish flavour.

To me it seems as if Milhaud is known more by reputation than by actual performance of his works. Following the Saint-Saëns concerto by sixty years, Milhaud’s Cello concerto No. 1 was premièred by soloist Maurice Maréchal in 1935. A second Cello concerto, Op.255 followed some eleven years later, a work which I have not yet encountered. Mstislav Rostropovitch has recorded doubtlessly the best-known account of the Cello concerto No. 1 in 1989 with the London Symphony Orchestra under Kent Nagano on Erato but it’s good to have a new recording in the catalogue. I’m not sure when I last heard this concerto, but it sounds better than ever with Lim in such outstanding form. One of the highlights of this album is how Lim revels in the uplifting and melodically agreeable writing of the opening movement Nonchalent. Marked Grave, the central movement with a disposition of foreboding, feels edgy with shadows as if depicting a scene deep in forest as night approaches. In pronounced contrast to the preceding movement the Finale: Joyeux is a mad-cap romp with Lim creating a carnival-like feel.

Although not French by birth Offenbach is included on this collection as he adopted France as his home country. Falling in 2019, the two hundredth anniversary of Offenbach will have prompted a number of recordings. Here from his set of Harmonies des bois, Op.76 written around 1853 is Offenbach’s Les larmes de Jacqueline (Jacqueline’s Tears) contained here in a version for cello and orchestra. There are a few recordings of the work in the catalogue including two released in the last couple of years from Sheku Kanneh-Mason and Camille Thomas which don’t quite match up to this new account by Lim. A real discovery for me, this is Offenbach at his most generous with Lim creating a dreamlike world of complete contentment. Massenet’s opera Thaïs premièred in Paris in 1894 is acclaimed for the Intermezzo known as the Méditation certainly one of the most beautiful works ever written, a popular stand-alone work and, in its various arrangements, a standard repertoire piece for soloists. For its enduring appeal the Méditation has been regularly recorded mainly with its originally intended solo violin part. Here Lim is playing the arrangement for cello and orchestra which provides a deeper sense of melancholy than the violin version. Captivatingly performed, Lim provides just the right amount of emotion without becoming cloying.

Effortlessly drawing me into her sound world Lim indubitably demonstrates impressive instincts for this romantic French repertoire. Throughout this is first-rate playing of beauty and considerable passion from Lim who stamps her personality onto each work without damaging the integrity of the composer’s intentions. Lim has the benefit of first class playing from the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Scott Yoo demonstrating style and an especially convincing dynamic and pace.

No problems whatsoever with the recorded sound produced at the Abbey Road, Studios, London. Fairly closely recorded, warm, clear and well balanced, everything fits nicely in the sound picture. Using a Dominique Peccatte bow Lim plays a cello by Joseph Filius Andrea Guarneri, Cremona (1714) an instrument which emits a magnificent warm, rich tone captured splendidly by the Abbey Road engineering team. Not a crucial element I admit but my grumble concerns the mediocrity of the booklet notes. Perhaps not surprisingly for a début album, here it’s all about marketing the soloist and the article titled ‘Hee-Young Lim: An Unexpected Journey’ written by James Inverne takes the form of an interview with Lim. This approach feels rather half-hearted and frustrating as it provides only scant information about the actual works. Sadly, nothing has been researched about Offenbach’s Les larmes de Jacqueline and not even the dates of each of the five featured composers are contained anywhere.

With a captivating programme of French romantic cello music the playing from Hee-Young Lim on this album is as outstanding as my admiration for the repertoire.

Michael Cookson

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