Shiny Violin: Alex Wilson Plays Paganini

Classical trumpet players rarely learn a Paganini concerto just for fun. Then again, most trumpeters in their mid-twenties have not already served as principal trumpet of a touring orchestra and placed first or second in not one but three National Trumpet Competition categories. Most trumpet players have not performed as a soloist with the symphony orchestras of two universities and accepted a position as a visiting trumpet professor while finishing their doctoral studies.

Alex Wilson is not most classical trumpet players, and his recording of Paganini’s second violin concerto proves it.

Joining the growing list of trumpeters playing violin works, Wilson arranged the Paganini himself. He relies on strategic register changes and cuts to craft a performance that showcases his musicality at near-virtuosic heights while avoiding exact imitation and the undue strain that often accompanies it. All told, he reduces a forty-minute concerto to a comfortable twenty-two. The casual listener cannot tell. Wilson also employs perhaps the most useful technique for orchestrating long-form works—he gives his accompanist some of the material normally played by the violin soloist. While some highbrow connoisseurs may frown upon this redistribution of motivic content, it is a practical decision rather than an aesthetic one. After breathing and other technical requirements are considered, it’s in a trumpeter’s best interests to take all the rest he can get.

In his quest to emulate the world’s elite violinists, Wilson chose to play the concerto down a whole step (reading a part for B-flat trumpet in the same key that a violin soloist would see). This was a wise choice, as it allows him to showcase his dexterity and technical skill. (Playing it in the original key would have put him in E major/C# minor, which would involve some less desirable fingering combinations.) That said, Wilson opts to make the concerto as hard as is reasonable, keeping what register jumps he can and putting in others that help him keep the range within playable boundaries. He also picks and chooses his ornamentations wisely, making enough stylistic decisions that he has obviously spent time with the piece yet few enough that we the audience are not overloaded by trills and grace notes.

Wilson has performed this piece plenty of times, including on his first doctoral recital, at the National Trumpet Competition in 2015, and at a masterclass with Mark Inouye of the San Francisco Symphony. If anything, this recording is slightly overdue. That said, he plays like someone who is falling in love with a piece for the first time; there is no sign of the complacency that can come from performing a piece that has been in the folder for a year. The first movement begins with the piano filling in for the full orchestra before we are introduced to the expansive, round sound of Wilson’s mid-low register. This movement displays the precision of his dynamic and technical control, hinting at the fire to come later in the piece but overall maintaining a stately classical style. Of the three movements, this may be my least favorite, mostly because I much prefer the vivacious, take-no-prisoners trumpet playing that we hear from Wilson in the third movement. When looked at through the lens of his entire performance, however, it is an effective introduction to the musical metamorphosis that Wilson himself will undergo over the course of the concerto.

The second movement arrives like a breath of much-needed air, letting us relax into our seats and enjoy the lush, open sound of a well-played trumpet. The piano-dominant segments after Wilson’s first entrance are slightly jarring, though I suspect that is due to the heavier-than-necessary attacks rather than the arrangement. When the two instruments play together, they blend well, creating a sound in which each is sensitive to the other’s movements. While it isn’t something most would consider virtuosic, the second movement is the most comfortable listening experience of the three – it neither leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat like the following movement nor comes with the blazing “THIS IS CLASSICAL” sign that accompanies its predecessor. It is gentle, effective music, whether you listen in the middle of a crowded room or while falling asleep at the end of the day.

The third movement is where Wilson’s inner devil comes out to play. This kind of trumpet playing makes everyone in the room sit up, pay attention, and wish they had practiced a little more last week. Wilson handles the violin line like the seasoned professional he is, jumping octaves and twelfths as though they were child’s play. He neither over-accents nor ignores the grace notes, and his rhythmic accuracy is a testament to his fingers and his brain. The third movement is likely the most difficult, spanning a range of just under three octaves (printed F# 3, the lowest note on the horn, up to E 6) and requiring the most technical dexterity, particularly during large register jumps and challenging multiple tonguing passages. We may never know how long Wilson spent arranging and practicing this movement, but most brass players faced with a two-octave arpeggiated glissando would politely tell you to take a hike. The six-minute whirlwind comes to a close all too soon, feeling like a Slightly Longer Ride in a Fast Machine and ending with an arpeggio so clean it sends a clear message to the audience: you’ll be hearing more from Alex Wilson.

As a newcomer to the world of violin-turned-trumpet concerti, I was thrilled to hear Wilson’s rendition of Paganini’s second violin concerto as part of his first studio effort, Volti Subito. His arranging and performing showcase a trumpeter whose musical maturity far exceeds his age yet who can remember exactly why he first picked up his instrument. Beyond the technical aspects of the performance, Wilson plays with the heart of a man who is as madly in love with the classical trumpet universe as he was when he received his first music school acceptance letter. The Paganini accompanies a host of other tracks on Wilson’s album, each played as masterfully and with as much spirit as the one preceding it. It is an invigorating start to a recording career that will doubtless continue introducing audiences to things they never thought possible. As Wilson’s liner notes say, “his time is now!”

Volti Subito is available now on Summit Records. ♦