Scottish Ensemble – Alison Balsom & Alasdair Beatson

Sonata for violin and bass in D minor, Op.6/4 [transcribed for trumpet by Alison Balsam]
Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op.110a [String Quartet No.8, transcribed Rudolf Barshai]
Concerto Grosso in B flat, Op.6/11
Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet and Strings, Op.35

Alison Balsom (trumpet)

Alasdair Beatson (piano)

Scottish Ensemble
Jonathan Morton

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 9 October, 2008
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Alison BalsomThe opening of the Albinoni did not augur well. The ‘Grave’ lacked weight and the string tone was thin. I steeled myself for an evening of ‘authentic’, scraped textures and uncharacterised melodic lines. Once the ‘Larghetto’ began, everything changed. The strings gained lustre, a more robust texture and a spring. Following the noncommittal role she had ascribed herself in the ‘Grave’, Alison Balsom now came to the fore. Her command of the trumpet gleamed in the long, glowing, melodic phrases. In the last movement, she declared herself a trumpet virtuoso of quite extraordinary brilliance and bravura.

Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony was searing. I last heard it at a late-night Prom in 2005 – from the Scottish Ensemble led by Clio Gould. The playing was pretty powerful then, but not a patch on this current outing – gaining in immediacy from the dimensions of Wigmore Hall. Jonathan Morton led his string-playing companions in a declaration of biting intensity, grating precision and relentless fury. According to the composer’s friend Lebedinsky, this Eighth String Quartet is an “epitaph”, declaring private, suicidal agony. In Rudolf Barshai’s version, Shostakovich, in effect, goes public and in accord with the official dedication to “victims of fascism and totalitarianism”. This performance was outstanding – an equal, matching the raging outcry of the work’s original inspiration.

After something so monumental, the Corelli stood little chance of making an impact. There was no trumpet to give it splendour or colour. The cool, unruffled poise of the strings could not help sounding over-refined and sedate.

The programme ended in the fireworks, reflection and exuberance of a 27-year-old musician, poised to captivate his country as a virtuoso pianist. (OK, his life didn’t turn out that way.) Shostakovich’s concerto introduced us to Alasdair Beatson and re-united us with Alison Balsom. Beatson is a fine pianist. He has nonchalant technique, winning sensitivity and commanding authority. He ripples, he ruminates and he sparkles. He has a nifty way with a jazz beat and a deliciously irreverent send-up of the romantic cliché. He is also wilful. This attribute renders his performance vital and distinctive. There is a catch: he can err. I winced whenever he (sparingly) inserted some fey rubato into a text that requires straightforward performance.

Balsom’s interventions were occasional but striking. During the allegro con brio, her brilliant pyrotechnics suggested a re-discovered trumpet concerto. From both soloists, indeed, not forgetting Jonathan Morton and the Ensemble, we had as much brio as we could wish. The performance was an exhilarating triumph.

There was an encore, too. Could anything follow such razzmatazz? Yes, a tango – a nuevo tango combining elements of traditional Argentina, jazz, baroque fugato and counterpoint – probably deriving from Ástor Piazzolla and played with consummate stylish swagger by strings, piano and blazing trumpet.

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