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 Recording of the Week  Alison Balsom

There isn’t a huge amount of repertoire for solo trumpet so, after acclaimed recordings of the Haydn and Hummel Concertos as well as a couple of Baroque discs and a disc of popular arrangements, it was inevitable that Alison Balsom would soon be looking towards more contemporary repertoire. Her new recording ‘Seraph’ is named after the new concerto written for her by James MacMillan which opens the disc but, coupled with the popular and romantically inclined Arutiunian Concerto and the masterpiece which is Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s Concerto from 1954, this isn’t only perfectly approachable, but core repertoire for the instrument.

Alison Balsom
Alison Balsom

The MacMillan Concerto, scored for trumpet and strings, was premiered last year at the Wigmore Hall accompanied by the Scottish Ensemble, and it is indeed that performance which is heard here. MacMillan clearly understands the varied and subtle colours and emotions that the instrument can express as, while the outer movements have plenty of punchy character and no shortage of notes, the central movement is much more haunting in feeling, with the trumpet and solo violin soaring and intertwining beautifully. Balsom’s remarkable breath control across long quiet notes is astonishing, and I think it is one of the most moving movements MacMillan has ever written.

Before the Arutiunian Concerto we get to hear the short solo trumpet work by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu called Paths, written in the early 1990s. It is a beautiful piece, with extensive use of the Harmon mute (plunger removed), and superbly shows off the subtleties of the instrument and its range of colours.

Completed in 1950, the Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian’s concerto quickly entered the mainstream repertoire for the instrument. Immediately attractive, it contains both soulful beautiful melodies as well as flashy dancing rhythms. Accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Lawrence Renes, this is a polished and spirited performance which Balsom makes sound effortless.

Prior to the concluding Zimmermann Concerto Balsom plays an evocative arrangement of the black American spiritual Nobody knows de trouble I see which she arranged herself with the pianist Tom Poster. It is really simple, with subtle changes as the piece evolves and a very sparse texture throughout. She accompanies herself with a multi-tracked very quiet trumpet backing and just odd piano notes. It sets the mood for the ensuing concerto (which uses the same spiritual as its basis) beautifully.

The Bernd Alois Zimmerman Concerto which concludes the disc was written in 1954 and is widely considered the finest of all latter-day trumpet concertos. As Balsom points out:

“It was very ahead of its time in the way it successfully blends jazz and humorous elements with dark elements, songlike elements and absurd, crazy elements.”

Set a bit like a series of variations with moods ranging from threatening to ironic, there is a lot to take in and with Zimmermann’s very original language and a wide range of techniques (including extensive use of jazz), this is a work of substantial scale. The orchestration includes big band brass, an array of percussion and a Hammond organ, but with unstinting commitment from Balsom, who plays with real passion and belief throughout, this is a memorable performance and well worth returning to.

Much to enjoy here. Sound samples as usual are available via the links below.

Alison Balsom: Seraph

Alison Balsom (trumpet), Scottish Ensemble, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Lawrence Renes

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC