Walton Passacaglia

Fanfare June 1997


Julian Lloyd Webber’s performances of British music always carry the imprimatur of authority. and transmit a palpable sense of conviction that never fails to win new devotees to this area of the cello literature. I am especially happy, then, to welcome these splendid offerings back to the catalogs. Lloyd Webber is an artist of missionary enterprise, and his playing is underpinned by a technical assurance that vouchsafes his preeminence as the foremost living exponent of England’s cellistic oeuvre. As a result of his advocacy, works like those collected on these two ASV issues arc increasingly seen as being emblematic of a unique nationalistic subgenre. That these two CDs embrace between them no fewer than six world-premiere recordings bespeaks as much. But that the music is played with such understanding, affection, and profundity of utterance outstrips regular expectations.

Britten’s Third Suite dates from the spring of 1971, and was premiered by Rostropovich (for whom the previous two Suites and the Cello Symphony were also written) in December 1974. The present performance, which dates from August 1979, is of special import, since it was in fact the first commercial recording of the piece, and it still holds its own in an increasingly competitive field. Julian Lloyd Webber’s account has both the pliant elasticity and the requisite expressive insights to make the most of its frisson and fantasy, but there is a deeper, darker, more elegiac core to this music. Britten’s implementation of the Kontakion, the Russian Orthodox hymn for the departed, is well documented, as is his decision to include an alternative version from English liturgy, and Julian Lloyd Webber plays the English Hymnal interpolation here. The Thema “Sacher,” an intriguing, unaccompanied cryptogram on the letters S-A-C-H-E-R, honored the conductor on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 1976. A slight sixty-two seconds in duration, the current performance evidences Britten’s ingenuity in the genre, and the playing is magical. Alan Rawsthome’s cello sonata of 1949 (pithy, driven, sometimes truculent, but never crass), makes clever use of recurrent, cyclic themes as earlier motifs are revisited in the Finale: at the time of writing, no other recording exists, so a reading of this quality is the more welcome for its reappearance. The pianist here. and in the remaining accompanied works discussed here (in fact, there is only one other in the case of the first of these two discs, and that is a beguilingly enraptured account of John Ireland’s The Holy Boy) is the pianist and composer John McCabe, with whom Julian Lloyd Webber has enjoyed an especially fruitful collaboration.

The remaining solo works here are by Sir Malcolm Arnold and Sir William Walton. The former’s 1987 Fantasy for solo cello is, in my view, a splendid addition to the repertoire. Cast in seven highly contrasted movements, its sophistication lurks behind an inscrutability that Hugo Cole describes as “Chinese economy of means.” It is an apt description, and Lloyd Webber’s account (still the only one in the catalog) focuses skillfully on the composer’s desire to draw out the naturalistic, rather than virtuosic, side of the instrument’s persona. The Walton Passacaglia is built along traditional lines (eight-measure theme and ten variations); it condenses Altonian severity and acerbity down to a solitary instrumental voice, and does so masterfully. This performance is mesmeric.

The second release is devoted to fine readings from both artists of sonatas by Sir Charles Villiers Standford and John Ireland, and two characteristic miniatures by Frank Bridge. The Sonata in G Minor by John Ireland (1923) has been examined in these pages in context of the Marco Polo disc from Raphael Wallfisch and John York (Marco Polo 8.223718). Much as 1 found a lot to admire here (the program is a valuable one, also including the Edmund Rubbra sonata in G Minor, op. 60, and the superb A-Minor Sonata by E. J. Moeran). there remains, on comparison with this ASV version, a degree of blandness and discernible reluctance at times to probe much beyond the outer veneer of the notes. Hence, Julian Lloyd Webber’s playing has instantly more appeal and commu- nicative depth, and John McCabe’s management of the taxing piano part is a model of restraint? perhaps it takes a composer well versed in the ways of both instruments to make this music really work texturally? Of the Bridge pairing, Lloyd Webber relates in his insert note his happenstance discovery of the Scherzetto in a collection of manuscripts at the Royal College of Music, London. He gave the modern premiere of the piece, seventy-seven years after its composition, in April 1976; this slight but delicious encore piece is an ideal foil to the somber mood of the preceding Elegy, dating from 1905. Both performances arc admirable. The other large-scale work is the majestic and uncommonly Brahmsian Second Sonata (op. 93?1893) by Stanford. This work, as deserving of a niche in the repertoire as the similarly neglected Elegiac Variations by Sir Donald Francis Tovey (played quite decently by Rebecca Rust and David Aptcr on Marco Polo 8.223637), receives a robust and impassioned performance here. and. like several of the works contained on these ASV issues, is otherwise unavailable. To sum up. Julian Lloyd Webber’s striking and compelling performances arc of consistent excellence, and recorded sound is likewise entirely serviceable. My only gripe is that the labels with which he is associated, ASV and Philips, have yet to recognize both the musical significance and commercial viability of this area of the cello literature. If they were to relent, however, they would find no better artist for the task than Julian Lloyd Webber, whose performances may be unreservedly commended.

Michael Jameson