Alison Balsom (CD review)

Alison Balsom; various accompanists and ensembles. EMI 509997 31660 2 3.

When I heard Alison Balsom's previous album, Seraph, I had to confess that I was not really up on the latest, greatest trumpet players, so I knew nothing about the British trumpet soloist. A little research 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; she was the former principal trumpet of the London Chamber Orchestra; she's a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. And, more important, she's a darn fine trumpet player. For her current album, titled simply Alison Balsom, the folks at her record label, EMI, have gathered together thirteen of her most-popular recordings, making an enjoyable best-of set.

The program begins with Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla's Esquala. It's a tango, of course, with a dazzling part for Ms. Balsom and an exciting way to open the show.

However, I might as well tell you now the four things I liked least about this enterprise, and they all have to do with EMI's booklet notes. First, the notes provide no details on who is accompanying Ms. Balsom on any of the tracks. In fact, there is no listing anywhere, booklet, cover, or jewel case back, of who's who. Second, there is no information on any of the composers, not even their first names. The album is all Alison Balsom, as though no one else counted or mattered. Third, there are no track timings listed anywhere, so there is no way to know how long anything lasts. And, fourth, the booklet itself folds out like a road map over a foot and a half long, making it very hard to hold, let alone read, and equally hard to fold back up. None of this is any reflection on Ms. Balcom, I'm sure, just shortsightedness (or neglect) on EMI's part.

Anyway, after Esquala we hear the Adagio from Marcello's Oboe Concerto in C minor, transcribed for piccolo trumpet. It's very sweet in every way.  After that we get even more variety: the traditional tune Shenandoah, which Ms. Balsom plays on flugelhorn with an organ accompaniment. It is quite dignified, and the deep, mellifluous sounds speak volumes about the great landscapes of America.

Next, we hear the Adagio from MacMillan's Seraph for Trumpet and String Orchestra, an angelic conversation between the trumpet and the other instruments of the orchestra. Following that is Rachmaninov's familiar Vocalise. This "song without words" is such a popular favorite, I have a disc in my collection devoted just to arrangements of it for different instruments and ensembles. Ms. Balsom's rendition is as affecting as any I've heard, even if the trumpet seems a little harsh for the piece's ethereal melodies.

And so it goes, with further works by Messiaen, Bach, Neruda, Debussy, and Lindberg. The only concerto presented in its entirety is Albinoni's Concerto after Sonata da Chiesta in D minor, a piece for oboe that Ms. Balsom transcribed for trumpet after she says she heard trumpeter Maurice Andre play it, and she fell in love with it. It gives her a chance to demonstrate her virtuosity while at the same time showing us her more warmly communicative side.

Despite EMI having recorded the tracks over a period of some ten years from 2002-2011, there is a remarkable uniformity of sound involved. All the recordings are smooth and warm, the trumpet ringing out in velvety tones. What I didn't hear, however, was any attempt at ultimate midrange transparency, much of a dynamic impact, and, except in the closing Piazzolla tango, much sense of depth to the orchestral accompaniment. These are recordings clearly meant to highlight the trumpet, placing it first and foremost in our minds. As such, it works fine.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa