Alison Balsom: Seraph (CD review)

Trumpet works by MacMillan, Takemitsu, Arutiunian, and Zimmermann. Alison Balsom, trumpet; Jonathan Morton, Scottish Ensemble; Lawrence Renes, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. EMI 50999 6 78590 2 3.

I confess I'm not really up on the latest, greatest trumpet players, so this new album from British trumpet soloist Alison Balsom helped bring me up to date on one of the instrument's leading exponents. Ms. Balsom is a multiple award winner with over half a dozen records to her credit, the former principal trumpet of the London Chamber Orchestra, and a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. More important, she's a darn fine trumpet player. On the present album, she performs three modern trumpet concertos and several shorter solo pieces. It's an entertaining program, although for me not entirely repeatable.

The program begins with Seraph for trumpet and string orchestra by Scottish composer and conductor James MacMillan (b. 1959), who wrote it in 2010 and dedicated it to Ms. Balsom. She describes the music as both playful and meditative, which is true. If only it had a little more that a listener could hang onto, it might yet catch the public's fancy. As it is, it is quite rhythmic, and Ms. Balsom gets to demonstrate her virtuosity with it. The central Adagio has a mysterious and plaintive quality about it, sounding rather mournful and bluesy at times. The finale appears to be a series of fanfares, intentionally "ungainly" in the composer's words. While filled with several fascinating ideas, it is also a typically contemporary piece of classical music that did not exactly nudge me toward a second listening.

The Trumpet Concerto in A flat by Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian (b. 1920), written in 1950, is more conventional than the MacMillan work that precedes it and, therefore, is more accessible to people like me. The composer infuses the music with plenty of melody and an abundance of Armenian folk tunes. Ms. Balsom's playing is sweet and sympathetic, encouraging our attention with her warm, vibrant tone. I found the piece a highlight of the set, framed as it is in a Romantic, old-fashioned sort of way.

The program concludes with the single-movement Trumpet Concerto "Nobody Knows de Trouble I See" by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann (1918-1970) and premiered in 1955. He wrote it as an underscoring of German racism at the time and as a "plea for brotherly unity." It develops the theme of the old Negro spiritual in variations that continue in assorted imaginative and compelling styles for about a quarter of an hour. Ms. Balsom appears to be as adept a jazz artist as she is an accomplished classical musician, floating effortlessly from one mood to another. It's a fascinating work that might appeal to a wide assortment of tastes.

Between the concertos, Ms. Balsom plays a few solos, equally affecting. The trumpet is not the easiest instrument for people to enjoy, but Ms. Balsom certainly makes a good case in its defense.

EMI afford the music three different venues, although with similar results. They got the MacMillan Seraph from a live recording broadcast by BBC Radio 3 from Wigmore Hall, London, in February, 2011, during the work's première. In it, we find the trumpet fairly close up, yet with good depth to the orchestra and a reasonably natural-sounding acoustic setting. EMI spare us the closing applause. The Arutiumian and Zimmerman concertos they recorded at City Halls, Glasgow, in June of 2011. The sound is slightly warmer and more distant in these pieces than in Seraph, better integrated, with good range, although a bit veiled through the midrange. The trumpet solos, recorded in Potton Hall, Suffolk, in October, 2011, sound the cleanest and most transparent of all, perhaps because the engineers had the least to deal with.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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