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Julian Lloyd Webber (cello)
The Singing Strad
rec. 1984-1999
DECCA 4851567 [3 CDs: 211:11]

This Decca compilation of Philips’ recordings, selling at a really good price gives us the opportunity to celebrate the career of one of Britain’s eminent and possibly still under-appreciated cellists.

Julian Lloyd Webber (b.1951), is brother of composer Andrew, Baron Lloyd-Webber (b.1948) and son of composer William (1914-1982). Julian retired from the concert-stage in 2014 and this birthday issue covers celebrated recordings made over nearly two decades. All were made with his Barjansky Stradivarius cello which he played for more than thirty years.

The cello is my favourite instrument. I love its deep tones and sometimes dark sonorities. Long ago, in the mists of time, I tried learning to play it and despite being unsuccessful, retain a huge affection for the cello and cellists. Reviewing JLW’s Fiftieth Birthday Celebration on BMG, back in 2002 we stated that (review): “this is a truly lovely collection that proclaims a master cellist as adept, sensitive and enthusiastic and operatic as the quiet singer - fluent and direct speaking - no musicians' musician but someone engaged with his audience”. It was therefore with high expectations that I looked forward to receiving this Limited Edition Celebration particularly as the 3 CDs contain complete versions of the major concerto works. I don’t like lone movements, just as I’m not keen when that is all that is played on some radio stations; it’s like a fragment of a painting. For long-term admirers it’s an opportunity to have a modestly priced collection of certain landmarks. For those, like me, who at present have none of his recordings, to obtain a good summary of some of his major achievements. The collection is enterprisingly divided into three distinct sections for the separate CDs, British, French and Russian Music. This makes it ideal as an introduction to interesting and diverse works from a wide range of composers. A nicely presented set it is garlanded with a good selection of photographs and brief but informative notes by Julian Haylock. All in all, it makes an ideal gift for those who would like to experience and enjoy superior music, some of it by no means well known.

The first disc begins with one of Julian Lloyd Webber’s most famous recordings, his 1985, Watford Town Hall traversal of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin. As it’s one of my favourite works, I will be covering this work in some detail with certain comparisons. I recall a cellist friend of mine being incensed that this version was chosen in BBC Radio 3’s “Building a Library” as best choice. Again, this site reviewed a largely Solti Elgar double set and in that review affirmed “The Julian Lloyd Webber/Menuhin is well worth hearing. As so often with [this] cellist the impression of spontaneity is strong. He plays with great technical command and a striking ability to transfer his concentration to the listener. There is some 'reinvention' in the invigorating little inflections and holdings-back of the flow. After a heartfelt Adagio the Allegro goes with a swing and a touch of Nielsen”. Rob also was complimentary about the subtly lit recording quality. Unsurprisingly, my go to recording in this work is the 1965 Jacqueline du Pré with Sir John Barbirolli and London Symphony Orchestra GROC EMI/Warners but I also reviewed in 2006 a Testament live recording of Du Pré, Barbirolli and BBC SO in Prague in 1967. This proved enjoyable rather than essential. There is also another live recording, from 1970, this time with her husband Daniel Barenboim and the Philadelphia Orchestra on Sony. This was favourably compared to the studio version, on that occasion review. As there is a tribute to Jackie later on this disc it seemed appropriate to compare Lloyd Webber with Du Pré, whom I know more than other cellists and made the work so much her own. The “final word” on this was that her mentor Rostropovich stopped playing it. I’m not discounting other versions that have appeared in the half century since but need to keep this review to reasonable length.

The combination of Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Yehudi Menuhin who is so associated with the Violin Concerto is truly inspired. Julian states that Yehudi was “an absolute joy to work with”. He paraphrased something Elgar had said on his deathbed “Play the first theme as though the sound is from over the hills” and that was what he tried to capture on the recording. I’d say that he gets it spot-on and after the elegiac opening, it was written in 1919 after WWI, the orchestra comes in with melody and empathy intertwined. The speeds of the first three movements are pretty similar to Du Pré/Barbirolli but there’s a feeling of taking everything in and that a lot of thought has been put into the performance. The playing is first class, as is the accompaniment and the recording very clear and tangible. The Lento-Allegro-molto is a real tour-de-force before the heartstrings are pulled by the Adagio. If I say that it is less emotional than Du Pré, I don’t imply it isn’t appropriate and communicates the sense of loss that Elgar was conveying. It’s a rendition that will be easier to return to, sometimes the Du Pré is too much. The skill of playing is manifest throughout and as is his aim, the cello sings. Julian is particularly strong in the concluding Allegro and again the orchestral interplay is superb. The da capo, when the original theme returns, is most effective. My verdict is that this is a telling version and especial credit goes to the skills of Menuhin and, in the later stages, the splendid brass. I’m delighted, at last to have heard this rendition but please don’t ask me to place it with others, it has its special qualities that I suspect will reveal themselves when I return.

The “British Music” theme continues with the effective “Idylle” by Elgar with organ accompaniment by John Birch. Christopher Palmer’s thoughtful arrangement of Ireland’s “Holy Boy” is followed by more “pastoral” music by Grainger and Vaughan Williams, the latter in an original arrangement. They are all with sympathetic accompaniment by Marriner and the ASMF. This is music appropriate to the sunny spring day during which I played the music and which comes across best separate from a playing of the main work. Lloyd Webber returns to Elgar with the popular “Chanson de matin” and “Salut d’amour”, authentically arranged by David Cullen for cello. This gives the works added maturity by comparison with the familiar violin versions. The renowned “Pie Jesu” from brother Andrew’s “Requiem” follows and works well. It will be loved by many. Julian’s tribute to du Pré “Jackie’s Song” is a captivating and forceful work with just a nod in the direction of Eric Coates. It fits well with the overall theme of this disc which is by no means a randomly put together medley. As he says in the notes it’s completely at opposite ends to the film “Hilary and Jackie” that caused so much personal distress. Holst’s “Invocation" was revived by Julian, firstly recorded for BMG in 1983 and re-recorded it in 1994. Julian played it in Cheltenham in 2008 and as Roger Evans (S&H), reviewing the concert, stated: “he gives a very personal and expressive account”. Played like this with sensitive support from ASMF and Marriner, I thought it well worth hearing and it ends the sequence appropriately.

“French Music” starts with an impassioned account of Saint-Saëns’ First Cello Concerto which is a realisation of a near-perfect partnership with Yan Pascal Tortelier who is of course French, a distinguished violinist and is also son of the celebrated cellist Paul Tortelier who made a recording of the Saint-Saëns with Louis Frémaux in Birmingham. Julian states “I remember him rehearsing the famous opening chord over and over again until it was absolutely precise”. The performance is extremely successful and proved gripping from start to finish. Saint-Saëns composed the concerto in 1872 when he was 37. The dedicatee was August Tolbecque who was also proficient at the Viola de Gamba. The booklet is bereft of notes on the pieces which, with this work, seems a shame. The original coupling, with shorter works was the Arthur Honegger concerto. I would prefer this to the pieces chosen some of which fall into “Classic FM” territory. Fauré’s “Elégie” is a Gothic-Baroque work that fits well after Saint-Saëns as does Gounod’s “Ave Maria”, based on J.S. Bach, this time with the ECO and Nicholas Cleobury. The sequence continues, all delightfully played, with some atmospheric Debussy, familiar deep-felt Massenet, “Café Cuban” by Bizet and two miniatures from Saint-Saëns. They all demonstrate Julian Lloyd Webber’s ability to communicate with the listener with a melodic tone. These short pieces would not be something that I would play very often - slightly too sweet - but I can imagine would be suitable for winding down at the end of a busy day, perhaps with a glass of something. In all instances, great credit should be given to the orchestras and conductors as well as the well-executed production and engineering that produce such an enticing sound throughout. The disc ends with three pieces with John Lenehan at the piano. After melancholic Debussy and Fauré’s ever-popular and totally delightful, if steady, “Dolly Suite”, it is enterprising to have Olivier Messiaen. “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” is from his remarkable “Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps”, first performed in a concentration camp. The work is inspired by the Book of Revelation and the measured progression and evocative phrases reflect a vision of “immutable peace”. It is less static than Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” (mirror in a mirror) that I find similarly hypnotic. All in all, a generally highly gratifying sequence.

The final part of the trilogy, “Russian Music”, commences with a favourite work by Tchaikovsky: “Rococo Variations”, here in its original version, not the concoction by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen which had deeply upset Tchaikovsky. If this means that the variations are longer here, then it’s a bonus in my opinion and Julian couldn’t have a more sympathetic conductor than Maxim Shostakovich, whose father Dmitri composed the cello sonata that appears later. As good as the Elgar, Saint-Saëns and Messiaen are, for me this is a standout in the collection and illustrates why I love this instrument and how it interplays with the orchestra. The lyrical “Nocturne” will come as a delightful surprise to many and to me shows how much of Tchaikovsky is still not well known; it has faithful advocates here. There follows a medley of suitable morsels by Glazunov, Borodin (especially effective), Vavilov and inevitably Rimsky-Korsakov. The bumblebee buzzes very appropriately and with humour. As with the previous discs a lot of thought has been put into the choice and order here. The special tone of the Barjansky Stradivarius is beautiful in these works and there is no cloying or milking of sentiment; it’s all splendidly Russian. The highly enterprising concluding work is the four movement Shostakovich Cello Sonata which Julian recorded with composer John McCabe whose Haydn Piano Sonatas (Decca) are a prized possession. “John was a fabulous player and brought a composer’s insight to the re-creative process” (JLW). There are also comments on the engineer Onno Scholtze dampening Snape Maltings’ natural resonance with sheets and blankets. It’s a subtle but by no means unapproachable work and one which I have in cherished recordings with Rostropovich/Britten and Lyn Harrell/Ashkenazy. This version is certainly on a par, in terms of authenticity, with those recordings. If you are familiar with some of Shostakovich’s quartets you will find a similar intensity but also some scampish humour in the Allegro which makes the lugubrious Largo even more of a contrast. The last movement is far more up-tempo and sounds a bit like a jazzed up “Birdcatcher song” from Mozart’s “Magic Flute”. It is played with verve as well as subtlety. In fact, it was composed by Shostakovich in 1934 and was first performed by the cellist Viktor Kubatsky. I’m very pleased and impressed to have such a demanding although highly listenable work as a conclusion. It’s another highlight and makes me want to hear the Britten sonata they recorded at that time.

It has been a delight and pleasure to hear these three discs and I cannot think of a more appropriate tribute to a very fine cellist and authentic musician. Great credit must also be given to the excellent array of conductors, accompanists and orchestral musicians. As it’s advertised as a budget limited edition, I’d suggest an early purchase and perhaps one more for a friend.
David R Dunsmore

Previous review: David McDade

CD 1 British Music [69:16]
Edward ELGAR Cello Concerto in E Minor Op 85
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Yehudi Menuhin
Edward ELGAR Une Idylle Op 4 No 1 ‘Esquisse facile’
John Birch (organ)
John IRELAND The Holy Boy
Percy GRAINGER Brigg Fair
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS ‘Romanza’ (from Tuba Concerto in F minor)
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
Edward ELGAR Chanson de Matin, Op 15 No 2
Edward ELGAR Salut d’Amour, Op 12
Andrew LLOYD WEBBER ‘Pie Jesu’ (from Requiem)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/ Barry Wordsworth
Julian LLOYD WEBBER Jackie’s Song
BBC Concert Orchestra/Barry Wordsworth
Gustav HOLST Invocation Op 19 No 2
Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields/Sir Neville Marriner
CD 2 French Music [69:54]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS Cello Concerto No 1 in A minor Op 33
Gabriel FAURÉ Élégie Op 24
English Chamber Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Charles GOUNOD/BACH Ave Maria prelude
English Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Claude DEBUSSY Rêverie
Jules MASSENET ‘Méditation’ from Thaïs
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
Georges BIZET ‘Habanera’ (‘L’Amour est un Oiseau Rebelle’) from Carmen Act 1
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Camille SAINT-SAËNS ‘Le Cygne’ from Le Carnaval des Animaux
English Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Camille SAINT-SAËNS Allegro Appassionato for cello and orchestra Op 43
English Chamber Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Claude DEBUSSY ‘Clair de Lune’ from Suite Bergamasque
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Claude DEBUSSY Beau Soir
Gabriel FAURÉ ‘Berceuse’ from Dolly Suite Op 56
Olivier MESSIAEN ‘Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus’ from Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps
John Lenehan (piano)
CD 3 Russian Music [72:01]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY Variations on a Rococo Theme Op 33
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY Nocturne in C sharp minor Op 19 No 4
London Symphony Orchestra/Maxim Shostakovich
Alexander GLAZUNOV 12 Mélodie Op 20 No 1
Alexander BORODIN Nocturne
Nikolai VAVILOV Ave Maria
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/James Judd
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV ‘Song of India’ from Sadko, Tableau 2
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Flight of the Bumblebee’ from The Tale of Tsar Saltan, Act 3
English Chamber Orchestra/Nicholas Cleobury
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH Cello Sonata Op 40
John McCabe (piano)

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