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James MACMILLAN (b.1959)
Seraph, for trumpet and strings (2010) [15:15]*
Toru TAKEMITSU (1930-1996)
Paths, for solo trumpet (1994) [6:15]
Alexander ARUTIUNIAN (1920-2012)
Trumpet Concerto (1950) [15:08]
Traditional (arr. Alison Balsom and Tom Poster)
Nobody Knows de Trouble I See [4:24]
Bernd Alois ZIMMERMANN (1918-1970)
Trumpet Concerto Nobody Knows de Trouble I See (1952-54) [14:34]
Alison Balsom (trumpet)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestral/Lawrence Renes
*Scottish Ensemble
rec. City Halls, Glasgow, 13-15 June 2011; Wigmore Hall, London, 17 February 2011 (Seraph, live); Potton Hall, Westleton, England, 14 October 2011 (Takemitsu, Trad.). DDD
EMI CLASSICS 6785902 [56:04] 

Experience Classicsonline

In the space of ten years Alison Balsom has become arguably one of the leading trumpet players in the art music realm, and the number one female. Doubtless her looks and glamour played a role in her securing a longstanding, ultimately lucrative contract with EMI Classics after her appearance as finalist in the 1998 BBC Young Musician competition, as well as awards on three separate occasions at the industry jolly known as the Classical BRITs. 

Yet her acceptance in more critical circles would not have been possible without her phenomenal ability, which is given a severe test on Seraph, a CD of the most contemporary music she has recorded to date. She proves equal to any ask, though, whether expressively or technically: even in Zimmermann's Concerto, rarely heard on account of its forbidding demands on the soloist, her breath control is astonishing, ditto her fluency, subtlety and lyricism. Her previous albums for EMI were universally praised, from her debut (review) to a selection of late-18th century concertos (review); even her appearance - surely compelled by contractual obligations! - on a Karl Jenkins Christmas album (review).  

This CD takes its title from James MacMillan's work, written for and dedicated to Balsom. It was co-commissioned by the Scottish Ensemble and Perth Concert Hall. MacMillan himself was a trumpeter in earlier days, and is able to feed some of that insight into this concertino to create an appealingly lyrical work, delicately orchestrated, that shows off the soloist to great advantage, especially in the seraphically serene slow movement. It may not be among MacMillan's profoundest works, but it is certainly picturesque enough to earn a place in the repertoire - especially with Balsom's certain advocacy. Early on, MacMillan deliberately and repeatedly misquotes Haydn's famous Concerto, one of Balsom's signature works, which she memorably performed at the Last Night of the Proms in 2009 and has already recorded twice. 

Bernd Zimmermann's Concerto - really a rhapsody - shades it as the finest work in Balsom's programme, and certainly the most difficult. Zimmermann intended it as a plea for racial harmony, and it is consequently fraught with dramatic, nervous tension and ominous allusion. The work includes serialist elements, although they are harmlessly integrated into what is in fact a terrifically exciting minor masterpiece, deliciously spiced with a jazzed-up version of the Negro spiritual, "Nobody knows de trouble I see" (more commonly heard as "Nobody knows de trouble I've seen"). 
Sadly, Alexander Arutiunian - or Harutyunyan, as his name is more accurately transliterated by Armenians - died in March 2012, but his glittering, virtuosic, rhetorical Trumpet Concerto is sure to live on, not just in this recording by Balsom, but in several others, not to mention on the international concert circuit.
Written in memory of Witold Lutosławski, Toru Takemitsu's Paths is an unusual dialogue for solo trumpet, a typically sparse interchange between muted and unmuted instrument. Wistfully thought-provoking if not exactly riveting, it is the first of two solo items that separate the three main works. Technically, Tom Poster and Alison Balsom's arrangement of the Negro spiritual that appears in Zimmermann's Concerto is not a solo piece after all, as Balsom, by dint of digital hook and crook, accompanies herself minimally on three other instruments. At any rate it will strike listeners either as evocatively soulful or too long by three quarters. 

These recordings took place at three separate venues over the space of eight months and there is, as a consequence, some variation in the audio quality, most notably in the decibel levels, which may require minor adjustment during playback. On the whole, however, sound is very good, especially in the Wigmore Hall recording.
Balsom aside for a moment, this CD counts as a good night out for Scotland too: James MacMillan as dependable as ever, and decent performances by the Scottish Ensemble and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, even if leader Jonathan Morton and conductor Lawrence Renes are not Scottish! 

Unfortunately EMI's resources did not stretch to biographical notes in the booklet - not even to the point of consistency in the capitalisation of the second 'm' in MacMillan's surname. Perhaps the budget was blown on the big glossy film-star-style photos, but in fairness Balsom does only appear on the covers. Inside the notes are detailed, and on the whole well written and sober, with writer Andrew Stewart settling down after an overblown first paragraph that opens with what sounds like an advertising slogan - "Mighty trumpet solos helped define the last century's soundtrack" - and goes on to show either a lack of knowledge or lack of respect towards other composers with the following statement: "Few among them appeared able to imagine the [trumpet] in the role of concert soloist. Those who did were often snared by convention, slavishly echoing fanfare figures from the trumpet's ceremonial past or pitching plodding solo melodies against busy orchestral textures". Something that could not be said of the Concertos by Weinberg, Shostakovich, Holmboe, Arnold, Maxwell Davies, Jolivet, Shchedrin, Gregson, Neuwirth, Panufnik, Stockhausen, Liebermann and numerous others.
Those impressed by Balsom on this CD - and who could fail to be? - need not wait long for more: EMI Classics have already released a follow-up, imaginatively entitled 'Alison Balsom', a sort of 'best of so far' compilation.
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