For its last classical concert of 2011, Perth welcomed back international trumpet virtuoso Alison Balsom to St John’s Kirk, this time with David Goode on organ, for an imaginative and challenging programme of music. Balsom, awarded Best Female Artist at this year’s Classical Brit Awards, is no stranger to the town, and a sizeable crowd filled the church for this recital.

Alison Balsom, © Matt Hennek and EMI Classics
Alison Balsom,
© Matt Hennek and EMI Classics

Coming at the end of a week in which Anglo-French relations were severely tested, it was perhaps more in the spirit of the Auld Alliance that the core of the program was music by Parisian organists. One of the delights of Paris is exploring the churches, and seeking out the lists of holders of the title organiste titulaire, who are often well-known names.

St John’s Kirk has just had a makeover, with more comfortable seating, better heating and big screens for those in the side aisles. Thankfully the acoustics are as good as ever they were: like most church organs, the three-manual instrument was designed for the building, and this recital gave us a chance to hear it in all its various colours. Organists are usually tucked away in lofts, but here the console can be moved wherever it is needed. In this case, it faced the audience, placing David Goode centre stage. Brass has always sounded wonderful in this church, so St John’s was a perfect venue for this concert.

Vivaldi’s Concerto for violin and string orchestra, Op. 3 no. 9 was transcribed for solo harpsichord by J.S. Bach and has been ‘further arranged’ for trumpet and organ. Alison Balsom, playing a piccolo trumpet, treated us to a simply dazzling display of breath control, phrasing, dynamics and ornamentation, matched by some lively organ accompaniment. She is an amazing player, bringing a wealth of variety of sound to the baroque style, and making it all appear effortless.

Jehan Alain became an organist following in his family's tradition, training under Marcel Dupré in Paris. He died tragically young at 29 in the early days of the Second World War where he was a despatch rider, but even so, he left a substantial legacy of organ music. Le Jardin Suspendu was a haunting, hypnotic piece in which Balsom switched to a standard trumpet, but employed a whole range of mutes to give variation in tone.

Alain’s Litanies was a spiritual highlight of the evening as it reflected Alain’s philosophy that prayer should be robust rather than plaintive. Balsom’s arrangement for trumpet and organ built up themes with complicated rhythms, rising to a divine blast of prayer with Goode deftly adding more stops, building to a tremendous ending with the full organ and trumpet playing a sustained discord.

Lebanese-born Naji Hakim was another Parisian organist, who suceeded Olivier Meissen at L’Église de la Sainte-Trinité. His Sonata for trumpet and organ in three movements was light-hearted, yet intricate and unusual for both players. Balsom played with superb assurance, producing jazzy notes and matching Goode’s vigorous playing.

Although Balsom was the main billing for the evening, David Goode showed he was a magnificent musical partner as his ever-changing choice of registration matched the demands of the music. As a solo piece, he chose Variations sur un vieux Noël by Saint Sulpice organist Marcel Dupré, familiar as the Easter hymn tune Noël Nouvelet. Goode took us on a tour of the organ as variation after variation introduced us to many different colours.

The final piece was Windows by Czech composer Peter Eben, written as an interpretation of four of Marc Chagall’s twelve stained glass windows in the Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem representing the tribes of Israel: Blue, Green, Red and Gold. Balsom explained that this was one of her favourite recital pieces, and that both organ and trumpet play equal roles. The music was unusual and innovative, ranging from fast complex pedal organ passages to almost fairground style trumpet. The final golden window built over a repeated Russian Orthodox hymn on the organ to end in a blaze of sound.

The large audience clearly relished the challenge of new and unfamiliar material, and Balsom and Goode gave us a delightful encore of variations on Ding Dong Merrily on High for a Christmas treat. But it was the haunting power of Alain’s Litanies that followed me home.

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