Menotti Arioso for 2 Cellos

Mail on Sunday April 10th 2011

Menotti Arioso for 2 Cellos

Julian’s party pieces

Many happy returns to one of British music’s finest. Cellist Julian Lloyd Webber celebrates his 60th on Thursday with a birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall, London, a two-hour special on Classic FM and a two-CD retrospective, The Art Of Julian Lloyd Webber, which includes a charming, newly recorded novelty.

It’s a rarely heard Arioso for two cellos and strings by Gian Carlo Menotti dating from the Fifties, on which Julian is partnered by his wife, the Chinese cellist Jiaxin Cheng, who is expecting their first child soon.

But that won’t prevent her playing on Thursday at a gala that also features Julian in Elgar’s concerto, of which he is, in my view, the foremost living exponent, as well as in a new piece for cello by American choral composer Eric Whitacre, provided he’s actually finished it by then.

The violinist Tasmin Little, the soprano Danielle de Niese, jazz legend Cleo Laine and brother Andrew complete an all-star line-up, ringmastered by Melvyn Bragg, whose South Bank Show had as its signature tune a lively set of Paganini variations composed by Andrew and played by Julian.

I shall be presiding over the cutting of the cake at the party afterwards, because Julian has been a dear friend for many years.

But it’s for more reasons than friendship that I hail him today as a musician of real distinction. His Elgar recording, with Yehudi Menuhin, was chosen as the finest ever version by BBC Music Magazine. His Walton concerto was described by the authoritative Gramophone magazine as ‘beyond any rival’. Julian has also recorded a lot of neglected music, especially English pieces by the likes of Frank Bridge and John Ireland, that would have been forgotten but for him.

Sadly, neither of them features in the new Universal tribute album, but the 33 items included nevertheless span an extraordinary range, and this is a feast for cello lovers.

Julian has premiered more than 50 new works for his instrument, including a concerto by Philip Glass, given its first performance in Beijing, and a delightful late masterpiece from Joaquin Rodrigo, Concierto Como Un Divertirnento.

He is dedicated to live music, which is why he gives so generously of his time to chair the Government’s In Harmony programme, intended to emulate Venezuela’s El Sistema in giving underprivileged youngsters a chance to learn an instrument. Julian has never followed fashion, which is why he has played so much neglected music – and also accounts for his lifelong devotion to Leyton Orient.

David Mellor