02. Theme (Paganini Caprice In A Minor No.24) And Variations 1-4
03. Variations 5 And 6
04. Variation 7
05. Variation 8
06. Variation 9
07. Variation 10
08. Variations 11-15 (Including Tributes)
09. Variation 9
10. Variation 13-14 (Varied)
11. Variation 17
12. Variation 18
13. Variations 19, 20 And 5 (varied)
14. Variations 21 And 22
15. Variation 23
- Don Airey / Grand Piano, ARP Odyssey, Mini Moog, Solina String Ensemble, Fender Piano
- Rod Argent / Grand Piano, Mini Moog, Roland RS 202, Yamaha CS80
- Gary Moore / Guitars
- Barbara Thomson / Flute, Alto Flute, Tenor Saxophone
- Jon Hiseman / Arbiter Auto Tune Drums, Paiste Cymbals & Gongs, Percussion
- John Mole / Fender Precision Bass, Hayman Fretless Bass Guitar
- Julian Lloyd Webber / Cello
- Dave Caddick / Piano
- Phil Collins / Drums and Percussion
- Herbie Flowers / Bass
- Bill LeSage / Vibes
- Andrew Lloyd Webber / Synthesisers
"We've done the Electric Savage album, I think, with Colosseum II, and Andrew Lloyd Webber was with the same record company, MCA. He was in the offices one day, heard this music and said, "Oh, that's wonderful! Who's that?" They said, "It's a drummer called Jon Hiseman, he's got a band, Colosseum II", so he rang me up and said, "You don't know me, dear boy, but I've written this work for my brother Julian, on cello, and I need exactly that combination to do it, which would be interesting". So I went to his home, and he played the music for me on the piano, for an hour, explaining what would happen. I didn't remember much of it, but I went back to Gary and said, "This guy really know what he's doing, and I think we should get involved". Gary thought it was a bit weird, but he agreed because the guy was going to pay us well. We went in the studio for two weeks and made this album, called "Variations". After then, Gary went off and did his own thing, of course, because Colosseum II broke up, but I stayed with Andrew all the way through to Requiem. We - Rod Argent, myself, Barbara, John Mole - only ever did three weeks in the shows in London, the first three weeks, and then handed it over to people who did that for a living."
Jon Hiseman - November 2004
Consider this as a Colosseum II album with special guests, and music pre-composed by a promising young composer who had already written the world's first Rock Opera proper (Jesus Christ Superstar), and had, in all likelihood, inspired The Who to write their opus "Tommy" with his first Rock Operetta "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat".
This was not yet the writer of horrors like Cats, Phantom of the Opera et al, but a composer in the right place and time and with the right potential to have produced something great.
He was a bit late for Prog Rock's 1st wave, in which style this set is based, but that doesn't stop his Variations on a Theme of Paganini from being every bit a masterpiece as Rakhmaninov's - only a rock and roll version, ya dig?
It should be noted that the theme from Paganini's Caprice in A minor on which this set of Variations is built has also been variegated by composers and musicians as varied and notable as Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Benny Goodman - so there are plenty of other sets to compare this one to.
Lloyd Webber's effort is not utterly flawless, but where it shines, it's the equal of the greatest prog tunes you can think of, and at it's worst, it's better than... well, I'd probably get into trouble for making direct comparisons, but I've heard Rick Wakeman produce worse material on more than one occasion, and at least Airey and Argent had the grace to keep the boxing gloves off, unlike certain Emersons of this world. And there's no equivalent of "More Fool Me" on here - in fact, hardly a note is wasted or used as filler.
In fact, in terms of execution, this album IS flawless - virtually every note perfectly in place, yet this is not a precision technical snorefest - it feels like a live rock band swinging into action; Nay! a PROG Rock band, as we have unusual instrumentation and a wide variety of styles making this a set of Variations that are arguably as good as those by any of the umpteen other composers who also wrote Variations on Paganini's Caprice - with blistering guitarwork from Gary Moore that wouldn't have impressed Paganini with it's speed, but would have blown his powdered wig off with it's intensity and smoked him out of his boots.
So, a long intro even by my standards - shall we get into the music?
A dark swirling mass of keyboards in the introduction gives way to the statement of the Caprice and Variations 1-4, AKA the theme to the South Bank Show (long- running UK TV show).
Julian Lloyd Webber leads the way with basic percussion - the juxtaposition of cello and drums works surprisingly well.
The lovely scrunchy piano entry that heralds the flute melody, seguing perfectly into a Moog squelchfest sets the scene for dramatically shifting music of a surprisingly wide pallete of tone colours and mini variations.
Variations 5 and 6 are a more acoustic affair, with an aching, wistful melody on the flute sensitively coloured by acoustic guitar and small electric guitar details, before opening into a broad, sweeping Cello theme... yes, you really can perform academic analysis on this music.
Variation 6 ends with a dark Moog using a low pedal to provide dramatic tension that builds amazingly into Variation 7, a complex riff fest with tight arhythmic percussion and atonal power chords in a brilliant prog rock style passage. The guitar solo that follows is the first nod towards the fireworks of Paganini, and is full of tension and dischord.
We mellow out a little with variation 8, and variation 9 is a more laid back, jazzy affair led by the sensual sax of Barbara Thompson.
Variation 10 appears to grow out of nowhere, with a spacey quality. The Cello takes the lead this time, with another wistful melody. The flute picks this up - and we can hear Lloyd Webbers show-tune writing abilities shining through.
While I'm not sure if the latter is a good thing or not, Variations 11-15 are more like it, with powerful guitar interspersed with keyboard, and twists and turns a-plenty. Despite the many tangents, Lloyd Webber expertly manages to maintain a coherent direction by keeping all the material related, and the twists and turns themselves morph into mini masterpieces that lesser bands would have dragged out for much longer - it seems you're just getting into one great idea, then everything changes. This is Variation writing as it was intended - and also Prog Rock as it should be played.
And now we allegedly return to Variation 16 - which is actually a variation of variation 7... Another delicious heavy riff is mashed up by Moog lines, then exposed and returned to. The main theme trickles through, but is broken down in a mini maelstrom of sound that maybe loses a little power by being so controlled and precise, but nevertheless maintains a momentum that is quite breathtaking. The ending to this variation is one of my favourite bits, so no spoilers here.
An alleged return to Variations 14-15 display yet more mastery at the form - earlier ideas are explored, developed, moved on from in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it-fest of compositional fireworks.
We then hop mysteriously into Variation 17. This is a Moog driven affair that sounds like it came out of the BBC Radiophonic workshop for an early episode of Dr Who - but loses nothing for it!
There were beautiful melodies in earlier variations, but Lloyd Webber has saved one of the best for Variation 18 - again taken up by his brother on the Cello with minimal backing from Moore and Mole. Around halfway through Moore takes up the melody and really shines with a wondrous guitar tone, but sadly the reins are returned to JLW to close the variation in syrupy style.
Next we have Variations 19, 20 and 6 (varied), another giddying, swirling demonstration of why this album is the Masterpiece I hold it to be. The main theme gets some prominence, but it is halted in its tracks before it can get going, and new material is presented before Variation 6 returns in majestrial glory.
But now I turn your attention swiftly to Variations 21 and 22. Gary Moore is allowed a free rein here, and dominates with aplomb. Variation 22 suddenly drops the music into a chasm with a surprisingly spacey sound given that the main instrument is the piano. Using motifs that hearken back to serialism, using quasi-cells or mini note- rows, flavours of Schoenberg create this dark feeling and underscore the fact that Lloyd Webber understood and had mastered a wide variety of compositional styles and had the potential to become a truly great composer of relevant art/rock material.
Variation 23 ends the set in pounding style, with Lloyd Webber turning in a performance that Paganini may have snickered at - but is most suitable for what is.
At the end of the day, this is a Prog Rock album with more than just pretensions to "Classical" music - it is rooted in just about every style contemporary in 1977/8 except punk rock and while it sounds "of its time", mainly due to the production, it is every bit as good as the Prog Rock album of your choice from 5 years earlier.
If you think Camel blended rock and orchestral well in "The Snow Goose" (which they did), Camel's sterling efforts pale into amateurish meandering in comparison to the masterful composisiton and arrangements presented here. Theme and Variations is one of the hardest compositional styles to master. This is a superb example of how it should be done.
Go Geddit - don't be ashamed to own this Andrew Lloyd Webber album!