Alison Balsom is Classily Brassy on 'Seraph'

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If, as an orchestral soloist, you aren’t picking up the violin, clarinet flute or piano, you learn to be a bit creative (though if you can pick up a piano, you probably have life well-sorted).

Trumpeter Alison Balsom has learned to navigate the historically limited solo repertoire of her instrument by adapting other works written for the likes of oboe and violin, as she did for her last disc on EMI, Italian Concertos. It’s a nifty way to supplement a comparatively modest repertoire.

Fast-forward to the 20th and 21st centuries, though, and the rarity of the solo trumpet becomes a thing of the past. Which is why Balsom’s latest disc, Seraph, doesn’t have to rely on Balsom’s keen transcriptionist’s hand (though that does come through in an arrangement of the spiritual “Nobody Knows,” a prelude arranged by Balsom herself to lead into the album's closing track, Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Trumpet Concerto in C, “Nobody Knows de Trouble I’ve See”). The centerpiece of this disc comes out of the gate first in Scottish composer James MacMillan’s 2010 work Seraph, a concerto written specifically for Balsom’s talents.

Such talents, it’s immediately apparent, are manifold when you hear how she deftly navigates colors and gradations over the course of three movements that careen between Handelian splendor—those are twinges of Messiah that you hear—Stravinskian earthiness—ditto for Rite of Spring—and a midsection adagio dialogue between violin and trumpet that is all MacMillan. 

Balsom contrasts the joy of the MacMillan with the haunting rubato of Takemitsu’s nuanced and deceptively simple solo work Paths, that blends open and muted trumpet to the effect of an inner dialogue that toes the line of schizophrenia. It serves as a bridge to the high-octane concerto of Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian, who blends his native folk music with the expressivity of Rimsky-Korsakov and irony of Shostakovich. If you come for the MacMillan, stay for the Arutiunian, but be prepared to crave even more.