Notes and Editorial Reviews
Alison Balsom (tpt); Lawrence Renes, cond; Scottish Ens; BBC Scottish SO
EMI 78590 (56:04)
class="ARIAL12">“Nobody Knows de Trouble I See”
My first encounter with trumpet player Alison Balsom was back in
29: 5 when I reviewed and recommended her recording (I believe it may have been her debut album) of Bach transcriptions. Five years later, I received her CD of mostly Italian violin and oboe concertos, again in transcriptions for trumpet. I was a bit less impressed the second time around, and noted that there was sufficient original repertoire for her instrument that programs of transcriptions were hardly necessary.
With this third album, it seems that my petition for original trumpet repertoire has been met, but not exactly with works I would have expected or necessarily wanted. I was thinking more of Torelli, Manfredini, Alessandro Scarlatti, Stradella, and Galuppi when I expressed my wish, but what Balsom has supplied instead are MacMillan, Takemitsu, Arutiunian, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann, whose opera
I once referred to as Eurotrash.
Let me address these works in chronological order. Alexander Arutiunian’s Trumpet Concerto (1950) has received coverage in these pages before, most recently by me in a 35:2 review of an excellent performance by John Holt, and not long before that in a 33:4 review by Raymond Tuttle of a so-so performance by Philippe Schartz. As one of the more frequently recorded 20th-century trumpet works, Arutiunian’s concerto succeeds in the listener-friendly department, no less so now than when it was written, by adopting an approved Soviet proletariat style that follows in the footsteps of Khachaturian. In other words, it’s tuneful, upbeat, rhythmically catchy, and gives no cause for the flapping of lips or ears. I like Balsom’s perky way with it, but I won’t say she out-trumpets Holt.
Completed only three years later is Zimmermann’s Trumpet Concerto, subtitled “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See.” It’s a caption, probably unintended, with a double meaning, for not only is the eponymous African-American spiritual woven into the score, but troubled indeed was Zimmermann, whose severe depression led to his suicide in 1970.
Not unlike other works by this composer, the concerto carries a political message, one of rejecting racial hatred and of achieving brotherly unity. To that end, the piece is a composite of musically disparate styles representing a United Nations of squabbling delegates with diverse interests. To the melting pot Zimmermann throws in a little of this and a little of that—a 12-tone row, jazz elements, episodes of Stravinsky-like neoclassicism, and Messiaen-like bits of
Balsom, who has obviously lived with the piece longer than I have and in a way I haven’t, considers the score “the greatest of all postwar instrumental concertos,” a statement that betrays a rather shocking unfamiliarity with the repertoire. For most, the term “postwar” refers to World War II, and right off the bat I could start by naming Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, completed in 1948, as one of the greatest of all postwar instrumental concertos. Others I could cite, practically up to the present day, like Jennifer Higdon’s violin concerto, recently recorded by Hilary Hahn, would fill the page. Possibly Balsom meant to qualify her statement by saying “trumpet” concertos, but even then, surely no one reasonably familiar with 20th-century music could seriously entertain the notion that Zimmermann’s 14-and-a-half minutes of disputatious dissidence and discord is great music, let alone the greatest anything in any category.
Toru Takemitsu (1930–96) was briefly one of the darlings of the avant-garde during the Penderecki-Xenakis-Ligeti-Lutos?awski phase of the 20th century. I probably wouldn’t go so far as to call him a flash in the pan, but it seems that today’s audiences are not the same as those that lionized him for his colorful tie-dyed sonorities back in the ’70s and ’80s. Certainly not all, but a good deal of Takmitsu’s music is based on an exploration of instrumental timbres. In this, it’s heavily influenced by Debussy and Messiaen, as was the music of the other composers mentioned during various stages of their careers.
is a six-and-a-half-minute piece for solo trumpet composed in 1994 as a memorial to Lutos?awski, who died that year. Inserting it between the two concertos on the disc, Balsom calls the piece a “palette cleanser.” I’m not quite sure how to interpret that (doesn’t she mean “palate”?), but if you like Ives’s
The Unanswered Question
, you’ll probably like
The booklet notes give no date for James MacMillan’s
, but since it was commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble and the Perth Concert Hall and since it was dedicated to Balsom and premiered by the same forces as on this CD at Wigmore Hall on February 17, 2011, it goes without saying that it has to be the most recently composed work on the program. MacMillan describes the piece as a concertino for trumpet and strings. It’s conventionally laid-out in three movements (fast-slow-fast), the first, angular and jaunty; the second, cantabile and introspective; and the third, “peppered with military fanfares.” The only connection to the work’s title is that medieval and Renaissance paintings often depict seraphs (isn’t the correct plural “seraphim,” like Shelley Berman’s “sheriff” and “sheriffim”?) blowing six-foot-long trumpets.
Actually, I have to say that MacMillan’s piece is the best thing on the disc. The first movement is a grinning, impish, tongue-in-cheek thing that has about it a taste of Les Six. Balsom’s tongue, of course, is everywhere but in her cheek as she navigates the tricky rhythms and virtuosic passagework with expert technique and perfect poise. The second movement is a quite romantic, sustained, atmospheric reverie. The last movement sounds for a moment like it is about to break into the gallop from Rossini’s
Overture, but MacMillan saves himself the embarrassment by quickly veering off into a different sort of gallop all his own. Now, if Balsom had called MacMillan’s piece a great postwar trumpet concerto instead of the Zimmermann, I’d agree with her. Very effective and very well done.
Obviously, this release will not appeal to everyone. Trumpet fanciers in general and Balsom fans in particular will be pleased, but only if their taste runs to modern works for the instrument. No question but that Alison Balsom is a trumpeter to trumpet.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Seraph by James MacMillan
Alison Balsom (Trumpet)
Concerto for Trumpet by Alexander Arutiunian
Alison Balsom (Trumpet)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1950; Armenia
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