“The Contemporary Natural Horn” – Jeffrey Snedeker, natural horn – self-published

by | Oct 29, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews

“The Contemporary Natural Horn” = ARKADY SCHILKLOPER: Alpine Trail; JAMES NICHOLAS: Sonata No. 3 for Natural Horn and Piano, “Searching”; JEFFREY SNEDEKER: Goodbye to a Friend; DOUGLAS HILL: Thoughtful Wanderings for natural horn, percussion, and recorded nature sounds; HERMANN BAUMANN; Elegia für Natürhorn; RANDALL FAUST: Dances for Natural Horn and Percussion; JEFFREY ARGELL: September Elegy for natural horn and piano; THOMAS HUNDERNER: Gently Weep for natural horn and digital delay; C. D. WIGGINS: Three Pieces for Natural Horn and Piano, Op. 88 – Jeffrey Snedeker, natural horn / Marilyn Willbanks, John Sanders, and Nikolas Caoile, piano / Mark Goodenberger, percussion – Jeffrey Snedeker JS3, 76:01 ***½:
Who knew? According to the introductory note in the booklet of this recording, a goodly number of contemporary composers have turned their attention to the natural horn, attracted by the instrument’s “wide ranging color palette” and stimulated by the challenges that its limit range posses. The best works on the program approach these features of the instrument in a musical way, while the least successful are by composers who just seem to want the horn to make vaguely musical noise. In fact, that’s probably true of contemporary music in general. But that’s a topic for another discussion.
Going by my own formula, among the more successful works on the program is James Nicholas’s Third Sonata, one of four the composer wrote for the instrument. Nicholas is concerned with performance practice of music from the Baroque era to the nineteenth century; I turned up an Internet article by him addressing considerations for performing the Schumann Cello Concerto. So perhaps expectedly, his horn sonata is tonal, melodic, probing in terms of sound production. Nicholas explores especially the upper range of the natural horn, exploiting both those noted limitations and coloristic possibilities: the hornist has to use a great deal of hand-stopping of the instrument to produce the fluid scale passages that Nicholas demands. I like the call-and-echo effects of the first movement.
I place Goodbye to a Friend, written by hornist Jeffrey Snedeker himself, among the more appealing pieces on the program. Again, this work puts the horn through its paces, demanding seamless playing through the tricks (hand-stopping, additional crooks) available to the natural horn player. It also makes a satisfying musical statement, a mini-Les Adieux Sonata.
More challenging both technically and musically is Elegia by the great German horn player Hermann Baumann. It’s angular, chromatic, by turns sad and angry. At the other end of the spectrum is English composer C. D. Wiggins’s upbeat Three Pieces, which is the most traditional-sounding work on the program. Its jazzy jauntiness reminds me a bit of Constance Lambert or even William Walton.
More elegiac music from Jeffrey Argell and Thomas Hunderner. Argell’s piece has the most contemporary feeling; a lament for the victims of 9/11, it includes improvisatory passages for both the horn and the piano and a fractured, dissonant Chorale that brings little peace. By contrast, Hunderner’s work takes its title not from any specific event but from a Beatles tune, “When My Guitar Gently Weeps,” since one of its musical motifs bears a resemblance to the song. The use of the digital relay, producing the same kind of echo effects heard elsewhere in the program, is conservative but appealing, though the piece does go on longer than it needs to.
Among those more interested in sound effects (double-stops, slides, and so forth—the double-stop sounds very weird indeed on the horn) are composers Arkady Shilkloper and Douglas Hill. I can take or leave their pieces. But then you can’t have a winner every time.
Horn players will of course want to hear this CD, but I think it’ll have broader appeal, thanks to the quality of the best music on the disc and the pretty remarkable playing of Jeffrey Snedeker, who teaches at Central Washington University and apparently keeps a busy schedule of performing with orchestras and jazz groups. If you want to know what the natural horn is capable of, Mr. Snedeker will let you hear.
—Lee Passarella