Mostly Mozart 08 – Barry Douglas & Alison Balsom

Die Zauberflöte – Overture
Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op.35
Die Zauberflöte – Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen [arr. Balsom]
Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)

Alison Balsom (trumpet)

Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Barry Douglas (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 July, 2008
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Barry DouglasNo sooner was this excellent concert finished than it had the misfortune to clash with Stringfever, a group playing outside the Barbican Hall on the “Post-concert club stage”, a poorly amplified, thick-bass incongruity with the just-heard ‘Emperor’ Concerto – a hasty retreat from the Barbican Centre became the only option – in which an ebullient Barry Douglas had fired his way into the opening cascading cadenzas and eased into lyrical asides and conjured martial pomp as an entity. This first movement was followed by an Adagio second movement of expressive flow and a finale that was vivacious and no slavery to the movement’s ‘rounds’. Douglas, at once virtuoso pianist and lucid director, the Academy responding with seasoned experience (splendid woodwind- and horn-playing as well as Tristan Fry’s unfailingly crisp attention to timpani detail), this vibrant performance deserved better than for the impressed listener to then be conflicted with the bombarding insensitivity of the outfit playing outside.

To begin the concert, Barry Douglas conducted a poised an exuberant Overture to “The Magic Flute” and then contributed to an often-remarkable account of Shostakovich’s sardonic and sorrowful Piano Concerto No.1. The first movement was reckless in the very fast tempo, intense, desperate, maybe too much too soon, but something was indeed kept in reserve for the madcap ‘chase music’ of the finale and there was much poignancy in the second movement. Alison Balsom is a sassy trumpeter, blessed with gleaming tone and clarity of delivery. Arguably some of her fortissimos were a little too loud and bright (but with none of the Soviet ‘edge’ of yesteryear that the composer would have recognised and which would have been appropriate here) and she may (at the moment) be more concerned with getting the notes in place (nearly a 100 per cent success rate here) rather than projecting what they may be about, yet her tone is remarkably ‘clean’ whether her instruments (two) are muted or not and her agility and confidence cannot be doubted.

Whether her arrangement of one of the Queen of the Night’s arias is really ‘necessary’ is a moot point; however successful from her standpoint, playing this showstopper on a trumpet (the piccolo variety, I believe) is not as frisson-making as a coloratura soprano straining for high staccato notes. So it was good to hear a sultrier side to Balsom’s art in the unannounced encore, unknown to your reviewer, a soulful number, presumably an operatic aria – arranged – that revealed Balsom as no mean songster.

Whether conducting or playing – or both – Barry Douglas was also on-song, in great spirits, and the ASMF was an adept partner throughout the evening.

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