I should begin by saying that this recording is Alison Balsom's first foray into the world of "safer" avant-garde repertoire. Her output thus far has consisted of transcriptions of baroque works, the standard classical concertos, and "pops" transcriptions. Much of this she does quite well. So, the compositions presented here are more experimental than her usual fare, but not on the level of Stockhausen, Berio, Ligeti, Kagel, or any number of other important post-war composers who have added works to the trumpet repertoire. I tend to agree with other reviewers that she is probably better off sticking with her tried and true styles, but disagree that the music is to blame. Those interpreters who really shine on works like these might not be able to sell a tune as well as Ms. Balsom does, but that doesn't mean it's a bad tune.
In the world of 20th-Century trumpet concertos, Zimmermann's is a giant. Since its re-discovery in the late 80's it has become a staple in the repertoire of serious trumpet soloists and orchestras (moreso in Europe than in North America). That said, its representation on disc is still pretty small... and that said, this performance is an unimportant and unimpressive addition. The piece is colorful, layered, expressive, beautifully-orchestrated, and technically extremely demanding. It's a huge undertaking to present this work at its best, and it seems like this performance was just another studio cut of another piece. This approach to music might work for pops arrangements, but just doesn't cut it for such an intricate composition. Taken as a whole, this recording feels like a solid read-through with not much consideration or musical sensitivity added. The extremely colorful orchestration comes off as a bit dull and bland. The solo part is played extremely safely, and while this means there's a lot of finesse in the trumpet playing, it leaves the music cold and stale. It even seems as though in this studio setting, Ms. Balsom is struggling with some of the more demanding parts. The trumpet soloist in this work really needs to take on the character of a big band player, a jazz combo leader, soulful vocalist, and, at times, an engine for the entire orchestra. Generally these different characters aren't even present, but when they are they feel largely contrived.
One is much better off with any of the other three available recordings [Reinhold Friedrich with the Frankfurt Radio Symphony conducted by Dmitri Kitayenko; Marco Blaauw with the Junge Deutsche Philharmonie conducted by Susanna Mälkki; Håkan Hardenberger with the SWF Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden conducted by Michael Gielen (an extremely important Zimmermann interpreter)]; each of which offers a unique and personal take that only serves to bring out the amazing complexity of this piece. All three of these recordings are so alive and convincing that even if only one of them were available on the market, Ms. Balsom's addition would still come off as redundant. With all three of them out there, this performance just seems trivial. Sadly, this one is the most readily available in North America, but Reinhold Friedrich's energetic and colorful performance should be easy enough to find as well. Marco Blaauw's live concert recording is easily accessible in Europe. I believe the original Hardenberger/Gielen recording is currently out-of-print, but if one finds a used copy, don't pass it up as this recording as a whole (also featuring Zimmermann's oboe and cello concertos performed by Heinz Holliger and Heinrich Schiff respectively) is a real treasure. It can also be found on youtube.
The Takemitsu fares much better. Her sound is lovely and the EMI engineers did a good job serving it well. This very well might be the best recorded acoustic environment I've heard for this piece. Sadly, the performance is kind of micro-phrased and the larger (admittedly complex) structure of this short piece gets lost. It's kind of a stream-of-consciousness work with some intricate structural elements that are difficult to bring out, but this is what makes the piece really beautiful. That said, there are some lovely moments as she can really sing a line - it's just a shame she can't apply this natural gift for phrasing to larger structures. Interestingly enough, I can only recommend performances by the same trumpeters mentioned in the Zimmermann portion of this review.
In closing, I will say that the programming for this CD is also pretty bizarre. The Zimmermann and Takemitsu aren't exactly complimentary pieces, but at least they're both mainstays of the 20th-century trumpet repertoire. I guess it's the inclusion of the Arutiunian that puzzles me the most. Taken in other terms, it might be like a violinist presenting of CD of Berg and Khachaturian... if the Khachaturian Violin Concerto were almost completely unknown outside of violin circles. Perhaps marketing appeal to the largely trumpet-based demographic that might otherwise be disinterested? The MacMillan, I will briefly mention, is another unimpressive addition to the trumpet repertoire. Even in the world of more mainstream contemporary repertoire there are much more interesting pieces [see the two concertos by HK Gruber (written for Håkan Hardenberger), Peter Eötvös' "Jet Stream" (for Markus Stockhausen), the expansive concerto by Peter Maxwell Davies (for John Wallace), and even MacMillan's first concerto for the instrument (also for John Wallace)]. Even by MacMillan's standards, this piece is pretty pedestrian.