Alison Balsom was seven years old when she first picked up the trumpet. "I loved the look of it, and the sound of it," she confesses, "And it was a very sociable instrument, still is, really. And I just thought it was very cool." Then her parents took her to see Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, and she was hooked, "He was playing the Hummel Trumpet Concerto which is really beautiful. It's very much like a Mozart piano concerto. It's got beautiful melodies, it's very elegant and I remember being just so blown away by it, if you pardon the pun." Right then and there she decided to follow her dream to become a trumpet soloist, eventually studying with Hakan Hardenberger at the Paris Conservatory. Now she has several recordings to her credit, and her latest is a collection of modern works for trumpet.
The recording opens with the title track, "Seraph." It's the world premiere live recording with the Scottish Ensemble of a work written for Alison Balsom by Scottish composer James MacMillan. Alison explains how this new piece came about. "He's already written a trumpet concerto which I've played a number of times, and that's how we met. I completely trusted him to write something that would work, and it does. It's kind of neo-classical in style. It's smaller than his first concerto, with a chamber orchestra rather than a huge symphony orchestra. And it starts with an amusing quote from the Haydn Concerto, which is funny, but it's there on purpose. But the second movement is quite extraordinary. When I first received the music, apart from the fact that I nearly had a heart attack because of the handwriting, he's got quite messy handwriting, and I received the manuscript and I thought, Oh, this is impossible! Once I calmed down I realized it was actually okay. It was just the handwriting. So eventually we had the first rehearsal with the orchestra and I just had goose pimples! Once you put it all together, the harmonies were just magical. The trumpet soars above the string sound but in a really haunting way."
The piece by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu is quite jazzy, according to Alison Balsom which suits her just fine, since one of her early role models was American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. "And even to this day, I listen to his recordings and I think, wow! I was lucky that he was the person I first discovered," she explains. "Because he was less of a trumpeter and more of an amazing, imaginative artist. He really used that instrument to sing." Later Balsom discovered the incredible classical trumpeter Maurice Andre who just recently died. " And he was again an incredible inspiration to me, that you could make this very elegant, feminine if you like, sweet sound on the trumpet. You don't have to do it all the time, but the fact that it's there, if you use your imagination, was a revelation to me."
Balsom stretches her imagination on this recording by including her own arrangement of the spiritual "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," which segues beautifully into Bernd Alois Zimmermann's trumpet concerto which makes use of the same melody.
My favorite piece on this recording is a work that's well loved in the repertoire, the Trumpet Concerto in A flat by Armenian composer Alexander Arutiunian, who recently passed away at age 91. Balsom says he was a pianist who had a great feel for the trumpet. "This is very lush and romantic and very heart-on-your-sleeve stuff," she explains. "It's got some very jolly tunes and it's got some very romantic, quiet sections and lyrical lines. So it's just really good fun and it felt like a nice thing to have as the centerpiece of the disc."
Alison Balsom plays a lot of mainstream trumpet concertos and she also likes to push boundaries. Her goal is to challenge people to be receptive to contemporary works. If you're interested in giving your ears something new to explore, give Alison Balsom's latest recording, "Seraph," a spin. It might very well blow you away.