Balsom delivers an attractive disc here, with her impressive technical skill and a sophisticated seriousness of purpose in her programming, but there's something important missing from this album. Balsom plays with magnificent virtuosity, but she presents no message, no artistic voice, no aesthetic philosophy, no unique understanding of or approach to these works of J.S. Bach. I think she's overly preoccupied with proving herself. There's a Carnival of Venice sort of character to this disc: bars and bars of sixteenth notes flow effortlessly from her trumpet, and then bars and bars more, but for all that you get no sense of a distinct musical personality. (Her tone is very French as well: focused and bright. You can hear that she's been taking Håkan Hardenberger pills. Personally I'm not fond of this sort of trumpet sound, but I understand that it's a matter of taste.)
I have an album of Bach oboe concerti, played by Heinz Hollinger, that's similar to Balsom's effort here: flawlessly even, rapid-fire delivery of difficult lines is emphasized. But what Hollinger communicates that Balsom doesn't is a certain idiosyncrasy, a sense that only Hollinger could play those pieces quite like that, even if another oboist were to match his tempos. Even Wynton Marsalis -- who was often criticized for being mechanical and stylistically daft in his classical recordings of the '80s -- evinced an amiable flair and attitude that Balsom here lacks.
Listen, for example, to the slow, lyrical movements: the sarabande from the D minor cello suite, say. This is the sort of music through which an instrumentalist of consummate artistry -- a Milstein, or a Fournier -- could explore his own aesthetic vision while at same time revealing to us the sublime depth and breadth of Bach's artistry. With Balsom, though, there's no insight... it's all very pretty and she really means it, but you can't say much more about her reading. Not having hundreds and hundreds of notes to keep track of in this movement, she seems a bit unsure of exactly where to direct her energies.
Even so, I think that a musician must be of immense skill to merit this sort of criticism at all. Lesser players delight for being very good; Balsom here disappoints just a bit because her playing hints at true greatness but isn't quite there. Balsom is a magnificent player lacking a distinct voice, and if she develops one she will become one of the most important instrumentalists on the scene.