When any classical musician wears milliondollar jewels and designer micro-dresses to industry events, is dubbed by Fleet Street as the “Trumpet Crumpet”, and sends the tabloids into a frenzy when she breaks up with her boyfriend, you could be forgiven for assuming that she’s just a rubbish player trading on her good looks. But from the moment Alison Balsom enters on Sound the Trumpet, her fifth album since the career-defining Caprice of 2006, all cynicism and doubts are cast aside.
Playing natural (valveless) trumpets, the 34-year-old multi- Classical Brit award-winner is in rare form and this follow-up to last year’s Seraph, which featured scary contemporary concerto repertoire, contains ceremonial music by Britain’s two greatest early masters in the form. With an inspired English Concert, reunited on disc with their founder Trevor Pinnock for the first time since 2002 and captured vibrantly within the album’s rich sound palette, Balsom’s trumpet at first seems strangely subdued by comparison. But it soon becomes clear that it’s the less flashy tone of the period-instrument itself – blending rather than dominating like its modern successor would – and also part of an overall strategy to keep the trumpetweaving in and out of the album fabric as a whole, holding listener fatigue at bay.
When the trumpet sound needs to slay you, as it does on Handel’s Birthday Ode for Queen Anne HWV74 (Eternal Source of Light Divine) as an obbligato alongside countertenor Iestyn Davies, there’s all the soloistic colour you could want, and that incredible track will make this a Desert Island Disc for years to come. So will Fairest Isle, emerging at the end of a lengthy Suite from Purcell’s King Arthur. On these and so many other jaw-dropping tracks, Balsom has an extraordinary, “vocal” style of phrasing. Normally the valveless trumpet is a beast of a thing that cracks for no good reason, but here it sounds almost easy to play, as Balsom turns every potential technical imperfection into some hauntingly emotive form of musical expression. For her, it’s a weeping and a wailing instrument, and on The Plaint from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, shared with soprano Lucy Crowe, she makes it cry like a living human being. And that’s how the album as a whole goes, the phrasing so immediate, communicating so directly and with such agility, that it becomes like an “operatic” showpiece from an artist who deserves every accolade.