If someone asked you to identify a classical trumpeter, whose name would you think of? Maurice André, or maybe Wynton Marsalis, whom André once praised as "potentially the greatest trumpeter of all time"? How about Alison Balsom? In 2000, she won the prize for the "Most Beautiful Sound" at the Maurice André International Trumpet Competition in Paris. Now, she has a new recording featuring Bach's music, a CD that makes it clear why she earned that honor.
Alison Balsom studied trumpet at the Guildhall School of Music and later at the Paris Conservatory with Swedish trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger. Her debut recording came out in 2002, and recently she signed a three-disc exclusive contract with EMI Classics. This recording, her second, is an all-Bach chamber program. That's a musical challenge, because Bach didn't write any chamber pieces specifically for trumpet. That means transcribing and rearranging his existing scores to suit the instrument. This young British trumpeter is a whiz at transcribing, which means we get to hear familiar works by Bach in a whole new light. One of Balsom's most radical adventures into Bach's chamber music is the Trio Sonata No. 5 in C major, BWV 529. Bach composed it in the late 1720's for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. It's one of a set of organ sonatas composed as a grand finale to his long apprenticeship with his father. The challenge for the organist in this trio is being able to coordinate hands and feet as three independent voices. That was no problem for Bach, who was the supreme organist of his day. In this transcription, Balsom gives the organist a break. She leads the way, sparring with the solo violin over the busy bass line, which is played here by harpsichord and viola da gamba.
There are certainly plenty of opportunities for the organ to shine on this new release. The very first track features organist Colm Carey blasting joyful chords. Carey is an organist who specializes in imaginative repertoire for his instrument, and there's no question he's having a great time exploring these new arrangements with Alison Balsom. Their fiery opening duet is driven by energizing rhythms as they condense the sound of a full concerto into two instruments.
This duet is actually Balsom's re-working of Bach's arrangement of the D major concerto by Vivaldi from "L'Estro Armonico", Op. 3, No. 9. Bach was serving as organist and chamber musician in Weimar when he wrote it. The Prince wanted to experience Venetian-style concertos; Bach knew a good piece when he heard one, so he answered the call by borrowing from Vivaldi, the violin master of the form.
Scholars have long been puzzled over the original instrumentation of Bach's harpsichord concertos because they survive in various forms. The A major concerto, which on this recording was transcribed to the key of C major, was written originally for oboe, or maybe even viola. You'll recognize the familiar melody line played by the organ.
To hear a trumpet rather than harpsichord or oboe in this concerto actually sounds very natural to me. Alison Balsom's trumpet introduces smooth lyrical lines in the melody, with that "beautiful tone" that made her a prize-winner. You hardly miss the original instruments!