Voted Young British Classical Performer of the Year at the 2006 Classical Brits, Alison Balsom follows her critically-acclaimed album Bach: Works for Trumpet with Caprice, a novel and demanding programme of specially arranged popular classical works. The album features sparkling transcriptions of Mozart's 'Rondo alla Turca' and the Queen of the Night's aria (from The Magic Flute) as well as the scintillating 'Variations on Bellini's Norma' by the French virtuoso Jean-Baptiste Arban. Amongst the more lyrical numbers, Balsom plays arrangements of Rachmaninov's haunting Vocalise and the exquisite Nocturne from Tomasi's Trumpet Concerto. She also brings her unique sound to two pieces played by the trumpet alone: Paganini's well-known violin Caprice No.24 and Debussy's Syrinx.
It is only natural that players of instruments with a limited repertoire should resort to transcriptions, citing a long line of arrangers from Bach to Liszt to Heifetz. However, the suitability of the material is as important as the skill of the transcriber, and you don't have to be a "purist" to object to some of Balsom's choices. Some of the transcriptions are her own, some are by Julian Milone, a violinist, who also provided the orchestrations of the non-orchestral accompaniments. Unfortunately they sound unnatural compared to Mozart's, in an aria from his Die Zauberflöte, and Bach's, in a movement of his A minor Violin Concerto. Two numbers are for trumpet alone: Paganini's 24th Caprice for violin, which keeps jumping from the highest to the lowest register, bringing out the worst of both, and Debussy's "Syrinx" for flute, which loses its languid character. The "Turkish Rondo" from Mozart's A major Piano Sonata is least satisfying: played in E-flat minor (instead of A minor), it sounds strident, and its breakneck pace destroys the original's grace and buoyancy. The arrangement often gives the melody to the orchestra and un-Mozartian virtuosic interjections to the trumpet. De Falla's Seven Popular Spanish Songs, orchestrated by Luciano Berio complete with castanets, come off better, and not surprisingly, two pieces by trumpet players are most successful: Jean-Baptiste Arban's Variations on Bellini's "Casta Diva," and the Nocturne from Henri Tomasi's Trumpet Concerto. Slow, dreamy and impressionistic, the Concerto is the only "original" piece on the program, and the listener wishes the disc had included all of it. On this record, the playing's the thing. Alison Balsom is a stunning virtuoso; she commands a huge register, a large range of dynamics and colors, and can achieve hair-raising speeds with ease and clarity. This is her second CD; the first was an all-Bach album. --Edith Eisler
Hilary Hahn is a splendid violinist, with an easy, flawless technique and a tone of pristine purity. She has already gained a reputation as a singularly serious performer; even her photographs show her in strikingly thoughtful poses. Indeed, her approach to the four Mozart sonatas on this recording seems to be almost too thoughtful: everything is so carefully planned that there is no room for imagination or spontaneity. Her tone is invariably beautiful but never varies in color or intensity; shifts of mood and character are heralded with tempo changes, ritards, breaks, and long pauses, even when Mozart clearly indicates a connection, as in the Finale of the Sonata K. 526. The ensemble with her long-time friend and partner Natalie Zhu is excellent, but they seem to have agreed to disagree on certain points, such as the execution of trills and ornaments, and the articulation of short notes: Hahn's playing is rounder and more lyrical, Zhu's brisker and more pointed. Both follow the current trend of superimposing dynamics and contrasts on the written score, as if they did not trust the music to speak for itself, but this only results in fussiness and a loss of continuity and simplicity. However, the balance is so good that the interchange between more and less prominent voices comes out perfectly. --Edith Eisler