Alison Balsom: Paris (CD review)

Alison Balsom, trumpet; various guest artists; Guy Barker and Timothy Redmond, The Guy Barker Orchestra. Warner Classics 0825646327898.

By now almost everyone knows Alison Balsom; in the past decade or so she has become probably the most well-known and well-liked concert trumpeter in the world. In case you don't know her, the British trumpet soloist has been playing trumpet professionally since 2001; she is a multiple award winner with a slew of albums to her credit; she was the former principal trumpet of the London Chamber Orchestra; and she's a Visiting Professor of Trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. More important, she is a darn fine trumpet player. I read a while back that she credits legendary jazz great Dizzy Gillespie as her inspiration, so if you hear any signs of casual, easy, improvisational, modern-jazz inflections in her playing, well, you know where they probably came from.

Most of Ms. Balsom's recordings have been theme albums, and this one is no different. She writes of it, "The concept of this album has been a long time coming. I'm constantly looking for different ways to demonstrate the many voices of the trumpet, and to prove that we don't need to define our musical tastes by genre. So about two years ago, I decided that it was time to explore a different style for this next project. I was initially inspired by Gil Evans and his masterful reworking of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez into the iconic Sketches of Spain for Miles Davis. I wondered if we could follow this bold concept of moving through the classical world and then beyond, with new orchestrations and unique colours."

Thus, we find Ms. Balsom performing twelve arrangements for trumpet and orchestra (or trumpet and guitar) by eight French, Argentinean, Hungarian, and Romani composers, all of the pieces flirting with the idea of Paris at their center. Accompanying Ms. Balsom on various items are several other well-known performers: guitarists Milos Karadaglic and Al Cherry and pianist Grant Windsor and on almost all the tracks by the Guy Barker Orchestra under the director of either Guy Barker or Timothy Redmond.

The selections include Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 and Gnossienne No. 3; Astor Piazzolla's Cafe 1930 and Oblivion; Michel Legrand's La Valse des Lilas; Olivier Messiaen's Le Baiser de l'Enfant Jesus; Maurice Ravel's Piece en forme de Habanera and Piano Concerto in G major (Adagio assai); Joseph Kosma's Autumn Leaves; and Django Reinhardt's Nuages.

I was not sure at first that the Satie pieces would work out too well with a solo trumpet and a seventy-or-so piece orchestra instead of a piano, but, in fact, Ms. Balsom's trumpet sound is deliciously sinuous and evocative, smooth and strong, the performer caressing each note and coaxing sweet nuances from the music. It's surprising how delicate, how gossamer-like, Ms. Balsom can make her trumpet react to her touch.

It's like that throughout the program. In Piazolla's Cafe 1930, for example, Milos accompanies Ms. Balsom, and the guitar-trumpet pairing proves a winning combination, nicely capturing the dusky jazz-dance inflections of the score. Almost all of the selections on the program involve slightly melancholy jazz and blues-inflected music, and Ms. Balsom appears well attuned to the idiom.

And so it goes. Among my favorites: Besides the Satie, I enjoyed the two Ravel pieces, especially the delightful Adagio, lovingly presented by Ms. Balsom and company with a good deal of obvious affection. The concluding Nuages also touched me and brought the program to a satisfying close.

Drawbacks? Not many. Certainly not the performances, which are sterling. However, I would point out a minor issue: namely, that the disc's fifty-two-minute run time is more in line with a pop album than a classical album, the latter usually filling out a CD's seventy-nine-minute potential a little better.

Producers Alison Balsom and Guy Barker and engineer and mixer Steve Price recorded the album at Angel Studios, London in May 2014. The sound is warm and round, with a mild hall resonance to help it along. The trumpet is rich, mellow, and luxuriant, nicely balanced with the orchestra. The orchestral support does not appear terribly well detailed but is lush and complementary. It's all a bit dreamy, actually, with great swaths of sound in as comfortable a setting as possible. It isn't an audiophile album, then, but more like one for quiet, romantic nights by the fire.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa