Horn Players Declare: It’s About Time!

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GILLINGHAM: Timepiece.* #+ ADLER: Cantilena for Solo Horn.# CIVIL: Suite for Two Horns.* # DIETZ: Caccia.* # BATZNER: Danger Tree for Horn and Mixed Media.* BISSILL: Time and Space*#+ / *Bruce Bonnell, #Andrew Pelletier, Fr-hn; +Peter Green, pno / Centaur CRC 3934

This unusual recital presents French horn players Bruce Bonnell and Andrew Pelletier, plus pianist Peter Green in two selections, covering a number of 20th and 21st-century works for those instruments. But modern does not always equate with atonal or abrasive, as is immediately apparent in David Gillingham’s Timepiece for two horns and piano. Divided into three movements, the music is modal but still tied to tonality; in fact, it closely resembles some of the pageantry-styled music that British composers were writing in the 1950s and ‘60s, yet it is a very interesting work with some really outstanding musical development. As advertised by the CD title, there is also a great deal of time-shifting in the meters chosen to perform it in, and I give great credit not only to our two hornists but also to pianist Green for being able to play this music as if it were in a normal meter, with no apparent effort in the constantly moving time. I must also give great credit to audio engineer Scott Topazi, who not only balanced these instruments beautifully in the microphone setup but also caught them in very forward sound without making any of them sound abrasive.

But of course, much of the sound of these horns is dependant on the performers themselves. Far too many modern-day horn players seem to revel in a large, warm, but very muddy sound, which I don’t particularly like or appreciate, but here both Bonnell and Pelletier play with a nice, bright “edge” to their sound when appropriate, only producing mellower tones in the soft passages. This I liked very much. The second movement of the Gillingham suite is largely given over to the pianist, with the horns interjecting a few dramatic figures here and there, but this, too works very well in giving the music some variety. As is often the case, there is some very dramatic, faster music in the middle of the movement. Towards the end, the horns almost sound as if a bit distant, and this, too is captured perfectly by the miking. The peppy third movement starts out in a jaunty 6/8, but of course it doesn’t stay there. Gillingham is an absolute wizard at changing meter in such a way that it’s almost, but not quite, perceptible to the average listener, yet so sophisticated that without seeing the score it’s difficult to say what some of the meters are. Some rising fanfares, combined with little, fast, four-note phrases, close out this piece.

Samuel Adler, a composer approaching his 100th birthday (he’s 96 this year), gives us the interesting Cantilena for Solo Horn in two short movements, “Slowly and very expressively” and “Fast and rhythmic.” I didn’t feel that Andrew Pelletier, who plays this piece alone, was terribly expressive (or very slow, for that matter) in the first movement, but he certainly gives his all in the second. Again, this music constantly shifts meters, particularly in the second half.

Alan Civil, who in the wake of Dennis Brain’s shocking early death was considered Great Britain’s finest orchestral horn player, wrote the whimsical Cantilena for Two Horns. The first movement moves its meters around little, fast serrated figures played by the horns in tandem; only occasionally in each of its four short movements do we hear just one horn at a time, and of course I can’t tell which performer is playing which solo. Played without piano accompaniment, the music has that whimsical “British” sort of sound which, I am told, matched Civil’s whimsical but subdued sense of humor, including some echo effects in the brief finale.

Christopher Dietz’ Caccia is an interesting piece in a more serious vein than many of those that preceded it. In the first movement, one horn plays a series of elongated quarter-note phrases while the second intersperses whole and half notes with faster counter-figures. The music is not so much atonal as merely “moving around” in tonality, including a few microtonal slides from the second horn. In the second movement, they play together more often yet still manage to find rhythmic counter-figures to play opposite each other. This was a REALLY tricky piece  to play from a rhythmic standpoint, as some of the faster figures could easily baffle less skilled hornists that these two. And it gets even more complex once they get into triple-tonguing, first near the end of the second movement and then in the third, where things become so complex that I was amazed that they didn’t get lost.

For me, personally, Jay C. Batzner’s Danger Tree for Horn and Mixed Media was a combination of interesting music with some pretty dumb electronic effects, starting with the sound of a scratchy old 78-rpm record and then moving into what sounded like a sci-fi movie’s space ship hum. I guess this is what Millennials think is cool-sounding, but to me it was just gimmicky, but as I say, the actual music played was pretty interesting, and eventually the pre-taped sounds became a bit more fitting (and interesting) as well, although Batzner’s later jaunt to what sounded like a shipyard didn’t thrill me much, either. (Apparently, he enjoys hearing French horns combined with the sounds of machinery and garbage. I don’t.)

But surprisingly, we end with a whimsical piece featuring a piano accompaniment that sounds like a music box, Richard Bissill’s Time and Space, and this was quite amusing, even a bit entertaining. A couple of minutes in is where Bissill suddenly gets cute with the tempo shifts, but this one is a little easier to follow than some of the others.

Except for the second half of Danger Tree, which gave me such a headache that I had to stop playing it, this is a really interesting album of music that is not just rarely, but never heard on other recordings (nor, I would think, in the concert hall), and thus highly recommended for both lovers of good contemporary music as well as those who just like the sound of French horns.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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