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Alison Balsom & Paul Lewis

Wigmore Hall Recitals 9 December 2003

Alison Balsom (trumpet) with Iaian Farrington (piano) 1 p.m.
Charpentier Prelude to Te Deum
Damase Prayers without words
Françaix Sonatine (1934)
Swayne Sangre viva: "Living blood"
Falla 4 Spanish Folk Songs
Gershwin/Farrington Someone to watch over me;I got rhythm

Paul Lewis (piano) 7.30 p.m.
Mozart Adagio in B minor K540
Schumann Kinderszenen op 15
Schubert Drei Klavierstücke D946/6 German Dances D820
Schoenberg 6 Little Piano Pieces Op. 19
Liszt Piano Sonata in B minor

You too may never have thought to attend a trumpet recital? If so, make a careful note of the name Alison Balsom. With a CV filled to bursting with accolades, she came to Wigmore Hall to give a new Giles Swayne commission its London première;it was that which caught my eye, having reviewed a new work of Swayne's, Epitaph and Refrain for 'broken quartet', the previous week (see Arpege).

Ultimately it is the qualities of technique and musicianship which determine satisfaction, not the particular instrument. As the basis of her trumpet technique (80% of it, Alison Balsom told me) she has developed an ease and naturalness of breathing which would be the envy of many famous singers. Add upon that a consummate beauty of tone and virtuosity that can be taken for granted and here is an artist who may have British young clamouring to learn the trumpet, as James Gallway did for the flute!

The programme was well constructed and most of it played from memory; her platform manner and appearance as winning as her phrasing of a melody, and far preferable to the commercialised images on her CD cover.

She began with a robust Charpentier prelude and ended with the (inevitable) Clarke Trumpet Tune, neither suitable for piano accompaniment. Damase and Francaix were grateful choices from the French repertoire, neither 'avant garde', both interesting in exploiting the lyrical and dancing faces of the instrument in appropriate settings. Falla's songs lacked nothing without their words, and gershwin sent us out to lunch happy.

Giles Swayne's Sangre viva, which makes modest use of extended techniques, is a substantial contemporary addition to a slender repertoire. It is in two unequal movements, designed to 'allow the performers space to breathe and make it their own'. The longer first made enjoyable listening, but its direction and destination were not easy to grasp at first hearing. The simpler Sueno (dream), its title from a Lorca peom about 'time, eternity and oblivion', was unproblematic and memorable.

Alison Balsom is so very good that a few words of criticism should be taken as a compliment. Not infrequently she chopped last notes of phrases a little shorter than I should wish, both in otherwise perfectly shaped melodies and even for some of those may be marked staccato? Trumpet with piano needs care and experimentation. Iaian Farrington, her dutiful accompanist, did not sound at his probable best. There are many shades of colour and balance than he discovered, different for the several genres covered in the recital. Also, from the press seats the sound of his piano, on the short stick, was trapped and buried under its lid. Alison Balsom explained to me that this set-up was used because she has a problem 'hearing herself' play in Wigmore Hall with the lid fully open; I have always remembered Szymon Goldberg, at a Dartington violin master-class, memorably insisting that should be axiomatic.

Alison should explore with the piano moved across the stage and turned a little away (that also allowing more of the audience to watch the keyboard), she herself playing from close to the piano stool, out of the direct line of fire! It will be interesting to hear the recording of this exemplary recital (to become available from YCAT) to hear whether balance (musical more than dynamics) was caught better by the microphones which were placed high enough to receive sound direct from the piano strings.

Meanwhile, there is her debut CD, recorded by EMI in Paisley Abbey with organist Quentin Thomas. I have reservations about some of the transcriptions, which sound old fashioned as arranged here; Bach's allemande from the second violin partita was not composed with consideration for a trumpeter's need to take breath! Petr Eben's Windows, a substantial four movement work inspired by Chagall stained glass windows, is a good reason to buy the disc (EMI Debut 5 75683 2). It is an excellent and deservedly praised CD, with fine trumpeting on several instruments in a variety of styles, but no substitute for the live recital experience, in which there could be no second chances for clever editors to slot into the completed product.

In Paris, 2000, Alison Balsom won a prize for the 'Most Beautiful Sound'. Beautiful 'touch' and sound quality was the particular distinguishing feature of Paul Lewis's recital in the evening - (the 'tail' of the Steinway was moved right across, close to the artists' entrance door, as discussed above).

I had been captivated by his recent Schubert DVD, and enjoyed his account at Wigmore Hall of the late Klavierstücke and, even more so, a group of German Dances. (But for Schubert I still prefer my personal benchmark, Schuchter on a Bösendorfer.)

Of particular interest was the Liszt sonata, that war-horse which must be one of the most frequently essayed works for aspiring pianists at Wigmore Hall, so much so that I make a point of not going to hear it too often (there are some seventy versions of the sonata in my catalogue!). It was Liszt (the Dante Sonata) that he was first taught by his mentor, Brendel.

It held together well under Lewis's hands, but the drama was muted and he seemed preoccupied with never hardening his tone nor pressing the climaxes to an extent that might hurt sensitive ears in a small hall, which I appreciated. In a revealing interview Paul Lewis explained how he had worked to change his piano playing from "raw" (which his playing began as), to "refined". According to the biographical notes, Paul Lewis is planning to record a Liszt CD 'later this year' - the outcome may not be redundant if he can become a little less inhibited in the studio.


© Peter Grahame Woolf