mon 22/07/2024

Classical CDs Weekly: Alison Balsom, Renée Fleming, Håkan Hardenberger | reviews, news & interviews

Classical CDs Weekly: Alison Balsom, Renée Fleming, Håkan Hardenberger

Classical CDs Weekly: Alison Balsom, Renée Fleming, Håkan Hardenberger

Two trumpet anthologies and a disc of French song

Alison Balsom plays contemporary trumpet concertosMat Hennek

Renée Fleming: Poèmes - Music by Ravel, Messiaen, Dutilleux (Decca)

The veteran French composer Henri Dutilleux is known for his select, refined output; this is a musician who only speaks when he’s sure he has something worth saying, usually expressed in music of intense elegance and poise. American soprano Renée Fleming, known to the composer, was chosen to give the first performances of his recent song cycle Le temps l’horloge in 2009, and it’s a live recording from 2009 that we get here. Four contrasting poems are set alongside a brief orchestral interlude, and the results are compelling. Fleming’s immaculate French diction is an asset, and Dutilleux’s luminous orchestral colours gleam under Seiji Ozawa’s direction. No effect is overplayed; the little touches of accordion in Desnos’s Le dernier poème, or the suitably queasy rhythms heard at the outset of the final song, Enivrez-vous (or Get Drunk). Fleming also sings Dutilleux’s earlier Deux sonnets de Jean Cassou, dating from 1954.

Messiaen’s Poèmes pour mi were written in 1936, an intoxicating sequence of songs celebrating the composer’s love for his first wife. Fleming’s ecstatic swoops and swoons are wondrous. This is music which invokes awe as well as delight; Messiaen’s habit of capping the most offbeat chord sequence with a glowing major triad never irritates, and the chiming bells (“La joie est revenue”) at the brash close of the cycle are magical. Ravel’s Shéhèrazade is far better known; a textbook example of imaginative word-setting. Tristan Klingsor’s fruity poetry is matched by Ravel’s characteristic orchestral finesse. Sample the third song,  L’indifférent, where Fleming’s ability to sing really softly comes into its own. Here, Alain Gilbert conducts the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France. Good to see that a major label is still willing to promote high-quality, offbeat repertoire – snap this disc up before it gets deleted.

Renée Fleming sings Poèmes pour mi

Seraph: Modern Trumpet Concertos Alison Balsom, Scottish Ensemble, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Lawrence Renes (EMI)

Like Sarah Willis, Alison Balsom is another instrumentalist forging a highly successful career in a male-dominated field. Her EMI releases up to now have included arrangements and transcriptions; here’s a smart compilation of trumpet concertos composed from 1950 to the present. The earliest work is Alexander Arutiunian’s kitschy, compact concerto – at once terribly naff and thrillingly enjoyable, its portentous sub-Shostakovich opening yielding to a principal theme of inescapable silliness. Lovely stuff though, especially the sections where Arutiunian invokes the music of his native Armenia in glowing primary shades. Balsom’s glorious sound makes you forgive any musical shortcomings, though a touch of vibrato-laden vulgarity would be welcome. You welcome Balsom’s bold decision to include the concerto Nobody Knows de Trouble I See by German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann, composed in the mid-1950s. Zimmermann’s use of an American spiritual, and its gradual assimilation into a predominantly serial work, was intended as an anti-racist statement in the postwar years. Less pretentious and more musically satisfying than one has any right to expect, this is possibly a masterpiece. Zimmermann’s angular melodies are haunting, expressive, and the emotional trajectory is compelling.

Takemitsu’s brief Paths, a six-minute solo written in memory of Lutoslawski, is less memorable. More successful is James MacMillan’s witty Seraph, which nicely exploits the trumpet’s comedic potential alongside Balsom’s ability to spin a cantabile line. It’s surely destined to become a repertoire work. I’m biased, but there’s something calmly uplifting about good brass playing. And this disc, well, uplifts.


Both Sides, Now Håkan Hardenberger, Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Kenneth Sillito (BIS)

A virtuoso from an earlier generation, Swedish trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger is easy to pigeonhole as an avant-garde specialist, one of those rare performers who can unpick the thorniest, most gnomic utterance by the likes of Henze and Birtwhistle. Here he is in the most unlikely of releases, a selection of songs and film themes backed by deftly arranged strings. A disc which recalls a famous 1950s Chet Baker album. Hardenberger expresses his motivation succinctly in the sleeve note: “I always look for the melody, no matter how avant-garde or complex the score… after all, isn’t that a basic human instinct?”

Hardenberger plays things pretty straight; there’s no ostentatious showing off and the arrangements, by several hands, are affectionate and subtle. The range of composers is eclectic; you don’t expect to find Joni Mitchell and Astor Piazzolla sharing a disc. But they do: Mitchell’s Both Sides, Now coexists with a smoky rendition of a slow Piazzolla tango.  Highlights include Jan Lundgren’s The Seagull, solo trumpet ruminating over Lynda Houghton’s pizzicato bass, and a dark reading of Weill’s beautiful Speak Low. The mood is nocturnal, elegiac. The most tasteful crossover disc I’ve heard in ages, and BIS’s monochrome presentation suits the project perfectly. Good sound as well.

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