Mary Elizabeth Bowden: Radiance
Summit Records

Radiance is certainly an apt title for this splendid debut recording of classical works by trumpeter Mary Elizabeth Bowden, especially when her playing is so expressive on the eight compositions. On technical grounds, she's an exquisite player whose polished tone is heard in ample supply on the seventy-four-minute release. Her versatility is also well-documented, not only in terms of the range of moods encompassed by the material but in her dextrous handling of both the piccolo trumpet and standard horn. The compositional focus of Radiance is on works by modern American composers (recorded versions of which appear for the first time), with Samuel Barber perhaps the most familiar of those included. His Three Songs are joined by three compositions by Joseph Turrin and one each from David Ludwig, Joseph Hallman, Catherine McMichael, and James Stephenson.

Though she frequently performs in orchestral contexts, whether it be as a guest soloist or as a member of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra and the Des Moines Metro Opera Orchestra, Bowden is typically accompanied (separately) on the chamber-styled Radiance by pianists Alexandra Carlson and Milana Strezeva plus in some cases a third party. Turrin's declamatory Escapade makes for a fine scene-setter in the showcase it provides for Bowden's virtuosic piccolo trumpet playing. Here and elsewhere, the purity of her largely vibrato-less attack keeps the focus on the composition as opposed to the soloist, even if it's impossible not to have one's attention drawn to the trumpeter when hers is the lead voice. Livelier by comparison, his romantic Fandango for Trumpet, Trombone, and Piano finds Bowden delivering a bravura performance in the company of trombonist Zenas Kim-Banther. Arabesque for Two Trumpets and Piano, Turrin's final contribution to the recording, holds special meaning for Bowden in featuring her alongside David Bilger, the principal trumpeter of the Philadelphia Orchestra and her teacher at the Curtis Institute of Music.

Darkening the album's mood, Barber's Three Songs (originally scored for voice and piano) gets underway with the sombre “Rain Has Fallen” before advancing onto the ruminative “Sleep Now” and animated “I Hear an Army.” Effectively capturing a gentler side of Bowden's playing, Ludwig's quietly stirring Radiance for Piccolo Trumpet and Strings augments her controlled reading with sympathetic accompaniment by five string players in a piece originally written for oboe and strings. On this consistently strong album, certain moments stand out, among them the transfixing second movement of Hallman's Sonata for Trumpet and Piano (which more than lives up to its ‘hypnotic' marking) and the entrancing “Beluga” movement in Catherine McMichael's Totem Voices for Trumpet and Piano (muting the trumpet also enables Bowden to effectively mimic the insect within its “Mosquito” movement). The spirited call-and-response between Bowden and Bilger on Arabesque for Two Trumpets and Piano is also striking, as is the to-and-fro between Bowden and flutist Mercedes Smith during the Stravinsky-esque “Ruby” movement in Stephenson's “Croatian” Trio for Trumpet, Flute, and Piano. Mention too must be made of Carlson and Strezeva, whose piano playing complements Bowden's with great sensitivity.

Though the material is all modern, it's largely harmonious and melodically grounded and thus eminently accessible to both experienced and novice classical listeners, and Radiance is an especially welcome release, given the relatively modest number of classical trumpet recordings that are issued compared to the plenitude featuring violinists and pianists as soloists.

May 2015