Gothenbourg Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner, conductor
Warner Classics, 2006
Differently from many other solo recording, Alison Balsom’s Caprice does not have an anonymous title that has only the purpose to present generally the kind of music the listener is going to hear, but cleverly implies at least two meanings.
The first is the most obvious and refers to the programme. This is composed by trumpet transcriptions of famous works for other instruments (as Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca and Bach’s Violin Concerto) and voice (as Mozart’s Der Hölle Rache or Rachmaninov’s Vocalise), so that the idea of “caprice” conveyed here is that of the wish of a trumpet player to appropriate of a repertoire that was not originally intended for her. Of course, this “caprice” must not be intended in a negative way, as the custom to re-arrange compositions is widespread. Caprice is rather an exploration, an attempt to prove that famous works as those collected here can be equally good in their new version as well as in the original one.
The second aspect linked with the title is more strictly musical, as the caprice or capriccio is a genre with a story of its own. The term was used for the first time by Jacquet de Berchem in 1561 with reference to a set of madrigals and later it was employed to define a variety of procedures, forms and performing media.
The lively character that usually characterizes a caprice or capriccio is definitely the main feature of Alison Balsom’s album. This is one of her first recordings, released shortly after Music for Trumpet and Organ, and the idea to collect several famous compositions from different eras re-arranged for trumpet was an effective one at that time because it revealed immediately the skill and talent of a new virtuosa and is still valuable because it offers an overview of her artistry and versatility.
The only risk of Caprice would be that the compositions had become unrecognizable or distorted after the transcription, something that could have regarded especially the works originally intended for voice as these, more than those written for another instrument, present many delicate nuances that is difficult for a trumpet to reproduce.
This problem has been happily avoided. Balsom has the sensitivity to understand the peculiarities of each work and to give to each of them a character that reflects their original destination and that adapts itself to the new one at the same time. Rachmaninov’s Vocalise is the ideal mirror of this approach as Balsom conveys very well its magical inspiration. The same happens with Jean-Baptiste Arban’s Norma. Variations on “Casta diva”, but the second part (corresponding to the caballetta A bello, a me ritorna) shows a kind of energy that connects it to Mozart’s Der Hölle Rache, where is stunning to hear how the trumpet effectively works in place of an angry soprano.
The piece that maybe represents better the spirit of Caprice is also the one that opens it, Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, performed by Balsom together with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. This lively, charming transcription of one of Mozart’s most celebrated pieces prejudices a little the veil of melancholy that is so typical of the Salzburg composer, but it is the most immediate sample of «a general disposition towards the exceptional, the whimsical, the fantastic and the apparently arbitrary» that is the peculiarity of the capriccio (the quote is from the New Grove). This spirit returns in the last work, Piazzolla’s Escualo, so that Caprice appears as a well-defined unit.
If melancholy is somehow supressed in Mozart’s Rondo, it has many chances to manifest itself in the next works. This does not regard Piazzolla’s Libertango and Falla’s Seven popular Spanish songs, where Balsom’s trumpet stresses the warm and sensuous character of the compositions, but has an important part in Oskar Lindberg’s Gammal fabodpsalm fran Dalarna. Andante and in Bach’s Violin Concerto (this last is notable also for Balsom’s sweetness) and is partially present also in Debussy’s Syrinx, where anyway the trumpet gives an idea of exotic and distance.
A pleasant surprise is Paganini’s Caprice no. 24 in A minor. A violin caprice becomes in this case a trumpet caprice and the passage appears natural and easy, although Balsom gives here an idea of solitude that in the violin version is completely absent and that is due to the difference between the two instruments.
Balsom is wonderful, of course. The sound of her trumpet is sweet and charming and has a clearly feminine sound, while her technique allows her to overcome without effort the most arduous passages, but if Caprice is so good it depends also from the orchestra. In some cases, as in Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra plays the part of the original instrument that was not arranged for trumpet, but in even more occasions it is as important as the solo instrument in the creation of the right atmosphere. The enthralling sound of Piazzolla’s Libertango or Escualo, for example, would have been impossible to produce if an accomplished trumpet player had a mediocre orchestra at her side. The sound of the strings, in particular, is very well captured and their reverberation creates a magical effect.
If the transcriptions of famous works for trumpet cause perplexity in the most sceptical listeners, the performance of Alison Balsom and of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra will make them disappear at one.