Classical Music/ String something simple/Julian Lloyd Webber,Wigmore Ha ll,London

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The Independent Culture
There were no frills on offer for Julian Lloyd Webber on Thursday at the Wigmore Hall. No record signings or glossy promo packs. Just an evening of simple, honest music-making, like he always said it should be.

Said it on this page, in fact, over a week ago, in an interview that raised expectations about his style of playing that could only be justified in the act. His programme, with French and Russian classics, new works and old novelties, suggested no lack of ideas. Even so, it was the artist in action who proved his point that playing the cello remains his principal devotion.

He began with Britten's Sonata in C; a smart choice, for in its spidery plucked strings and side-glancing melodies he could project the spirit of his musicianship with little chance of going over the top. Elusiveness seems written into the very notes of this piece, and Lloyd Webber came nearest to direct statement in the Elegia, keening cello against acrid, bitonal chords from the pianist John Lenehan. Yet neither here nor in Debussy's late Sonata were the players working at full pressure, desp ite a noble view of the Prologue and an encounter with the Serenade that caught the deft instability of its nervous pantomime.

Instead, these works gave a preview of the full picture to come: a tonal range that stretched from the lustrous alto timbre of an antique viola to a crisp, succulent bass, and a rhythmic acumen willingly shared between the two players.

The reward came after the interval, in a faultless reading of Rachmaninov's testing Cello Sonata. After the bold adventure of its opening bars, the second theme, proposed by Lenehan and propelled by Lloyd Webber through a flight of echoes and asides, stood for the fine co- ordination of the whole. Gruff tremolos in the scherzo and a fine tune in the slow movement yielded to a finale that relaxed just enough to give the lyrical moments room to breath; it drew lively applause.

For a striking contrast, there was also the premiere of Dream Sequence, Richard Rodney Bennett's medley of Broadway themes about childhood. And who else but the incomparable Bennett could turn a simple exercise into such art?

His chords had an easy showtime magic; at a push you could work them out at the piano; but never quite the chords he chose, and in such exquisite order. Lloyd Webber's rapt pianissimo was an asset both here and in the plainsong world of another premiere,James MacMillan's Kiss on Wood; bright piano chords like flashes of lightning; then silence; then a winding chant for cello, stretched out on the rack of more silence to end on a prie-dieu of comforting harmonies. MacMillan's vision of the cross was serene yet questioning and, like the Bennett, a significant plus for the cello repertoire.

A bouquet of salon music rounded off the evening: Cyril Scott's Pastoral and Reel and Lullaby and Frank Bridge's scherzo. These are composers who are polished and passionate, yet often undervalued. A bit like Lloyd Webber? No longer, on the evidence of this wholesome plum-pudding of a concert.