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Julian Lloyd Webber (cello)
The Singing Strad
A 70th Birthday Collection
rec. 1984-1999 various locations
Reviewed as downloaded from press preview
DECCA 4851567 [3 CDs - 211:11]

To commemorate Julian Lloyd Webber’s 70th birthday, Decca have released this three CD set, chosen by the musician, of his favourite recordings. It is a timely reminder of what we lost when a herniated disc forced him into retirement in 2014.

The subtitle of this collection is no accident, as Lloyd Webber really does let his cello sing throughout.

If we were talking about a singer and not a cellist, one of the first things I would mention would be the naturalness of his breathing. Virtually everything on this set is played as though it were sung and Lloyd Webber’s way of singing never displays a hint of breathlessness, even at high speed.

Lloyd Webber, alongside his considerable gifts as a cellist, clearly has a happy knack of curating his recordings. Here he conveniently presents us with three discs, respectively featuring the music of England, France and Russia. Each disc features a substantial concertante work alongside all manner of bon-bons.

For all that a lot of the music on these well filled CDs might be termed ‘light’, Lloyd Webber always treats them with the utmost respect. Even the Pie Jesu from his brother Andrew’s Requiem, which I expected to be horribly mawkish, acquired a touching dignity in Julian’s hands.

Not all of his choices seem to me in the best of taste. The arrangement of the Habanera from Carmen, replete with flamenco guitar and trumpets, transported me to a rather tacky restaurant entertainment. An impression not helped by Lloyd Webber singularly lacking the razzmatazz to pull off such a confection. But this willingness to take risks is part of what makes this set so enjoyable – you never know what’s around the corner. So for the occasional Habanera, we get plenty of things like Debussy’s Beau Soir, a delectable reading.

This elegant, natural way of playing is particularly well suited to the music on the French disc. Here his manner reflects the influence of his teacher Pierre Fournier. His virtuosity is worn lightly and is always put at the service of the music.

There is nothing especially Russian about Lloyd Webber’s approach to the music on the Russian disc. His manner is restrained and classy rather than heart on sleeve. I found this a particularly winning way with the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations, a work of which I am not generally overly fond. Again and again Lloyd Webber’s restraint pays dividends and I was genuinely surprised how much emotional depth he found in the piece.

As a minor curiosity, the Ave Maria by Giulio Caccini included on the Russian disc turns out to be a fake/misattribution (depending on how charitable one is feeling) of a work by the 20th century Russian composer Vavilov who had a penchant for this sort of thing. Regardless of its provenance, Lloyd Webber proves yet again a convincing advocate. The orchestral arrangements, as here, are often a little soft centred but never less than effective and always unobtrusive.

The whole set ends on a more challenging note with a sparkling account of the Shostakovich cello sonata. The finale is scintillating. Much though I enjoyed the lighter fare on offer throughout this set, the success of this performance made me regret slightly that Lloyd Webber hadn’t included some more challenging stuff like this. After all, he has been responsible for a significant number of commissions and premieres – an aspect of his career not reflected here.

The whole thing kicks off with what must surely be the finest recording Lloyd Webber ever made – his partnership with Yehudi Menuhin in the Elgar cello concerto. For me, this is one of only a very small handful of performances of this work that deserve to stand alongside Du Pré’s famous account with Barbirolli. I would probably go so far as to say that I marginally prefer Lloyd Webber and Menuhin. Cellist and conductor are in absolute communion from first bar to last. Lloyd Webber, in his chatty notes, mentions Menuhin saying to him before they began the recording something Elgar had said on his deathbed: “play the first theme as though it were coming over the hills”. This is the quality I hear stamped on every bar of this wonderful performance.

Whilst none of the rest of the music included on the English disc reaches the heights of the Elgar concerto, Lloyd Webber is a sensitive guide who clearly loves all the music he plays. I would recommend sampling his way with the Percy Grainger version of Brigg Fair (better known from the Delius orchestral work). Lloyd Webber has a very special way with a sotto voce and the last verse captures it perfectly.

I approached a three-CD box set of mostly lighter cello music with some fear of stomach ache from too much sugar but Lloyd Webber’s immaculately tasteful way with everything here kept me from any such overload. I found myself asking whether, for all his fame and success, we have all, myself most definitely included, rather underestimated this superb cellist?

David McDade

CD1 [69:16]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Cello Concerto in E minor Op 85 [29:14]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Yehudi Menuhin
Une Idylle Op 4 No 1 [3:34]
with John Birch, organ
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy, arr. Christopher Palmer [3:25]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Brigg Fair, arr. Palmer [2:58]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Romanza (arr. from Tuba Concerto in F minor) [5:04]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Chanson de Matin Op 15 No 2, arr. David Cullen [3:01]
Salut d’Amour Op 12, arr. David Cullen [3:18]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Andrew LLOYD WEBBER (born 1948)
Pie Jesu from Requiem, arr. Cullen [5:18]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Julian LLOYD WEBBER (born 1951)
Jackie’s Song [3:35]
BBC Concert Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Invocation Op19 No 2 [9:29]
The Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Sir Neville Marriner

CD2 [69:54]
Camille SAINT SAËNS (1835-1921)
Cello Concerto No 1 [18:52]
English Chamber Orchestra/Jan Pascal Tortelier
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Elégie Op 24 [7:02]
English Chamber Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) after JS Bach (1685-1750)
Ave Maria CG89a (Prelude from Prelude and Fugue BWV846) arr. Palmer [5:00]
English Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Reverie L.68, arr. Cullen [3:56]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Méditation de Thaïs, arr. Cullen [4:42]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Carmen WD31 Act 1: Habanera, arr. Palmer [2:16]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Le Carnaval des Animaux R125: Le Cygne, arr. Palmer[3:19]
English Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Allegro Appassionata Op 43 [3:24]
English Chamber Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Suite Bergamasque L75: Clair de lune, arr. Palmer [6:00]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Beau Soir L6, arr. Heifetz [2:37]
with John Lenehan (piano)
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Dolly Suite Op 56: Berceuse [3:11]
with John Lenehan (piano)
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps: 5. Louange [8:49]
with John Lenehan (piano)

CD3 [72:01]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Variations on a Rococo Theme Op 33 [19:39]
Nocturne in C-sharp minor Op 19 No 4 [4:56]
London Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich
Alexander GLAZUNOV (18 (1865-1936)
Mélodie Op 20 No 1 [6:34]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-87)
Nocturne, arr. Cullen [3:59]
Vladimir VAVILOV (1925-1973)
Ave Maria, attrib. Caccini, arr. Cullen [5:26]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Sadko Tableau 2: Song of India, arr. Palmer [3:44]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
The Tale of Tsar Saltan : The Flight of the Bumblebee, arr. Palmer [1:11]
English Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Cello Sonata Op 40 [26:06]
with John McCabe (piano)

rec. Ave Maria (Gounod), Le Cygne, Flight of the Bumblebee: Henry Wood Hall, London, 17, 18 March 1984
Elgar Cello Concerto: Watford Town Hall, 18–20 July 1985
Habanera, Clair de lune, Chant Hindu: London, 2–4 April 1986
Shostakovich Cello Sonata: Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk, April 1988
Pie Jesu: CBS Studios, London, December 1989
Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto, Élégie, Allegro appassionato: Watford Town Hall, 12–14 February 1990
Nocturne (Tchaikovsky), Rococo Variations: Abbey Road, Studio 1, London, 4, 5 September 1991
Beau soir, Louange à l’éternité de Jésus: The Hit Factory, London, February 1992
Berceuse: Henry Wood Hall, London, 26–28 October 1993
Idylle, The Holy Boy, Brigg Fair, Romanza, Invocation: St John’s Smith Square & St Mary’s, Rotherhithe, London, 4–8 January 1994
Chanson de matin, Salut d’amour, Rêverie, Méditation from Thaïs, Mélodie, Nocturne (Borodin), Ave Maria (Caccini): The Colosseum, Watford, May 1998
Jackie’s Song: All Hallows, Gospel Oak, London, November 1998