20th-Century Horn Sonatas

Review by: Jed Distler

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Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

Except for York Bowen, the composers featured on this disc of 20th-century horn sonatas may not be familiar to general collectors. I had never heard of Sixten Sylvan (1914-2001), whose gift for melodic declamation and effectively unpredictable shifts between plain-spoken tonality and modal detours belies the fact that he was not a composer by profession. The sonata by Jean-Michel Damase has a first movement that begins with terse horn lines flowing between dark and dissonant swirling piano figurations in the bass registers; as the piano writing ascends into the treble, the material becomes more tonal and conventional. The central slow movement features smooth canonic writing, while the composer saves his best ideas for the Allegro vivo finale.

Leslie Bassett (1923-2016) exploits more of the horn’s range than either Sylvan or Damase, and also allots more thematic material to the pianist. His harmonic language reflects the tonal leanings typifying certain of his contemporaries (Persichetti and Schuman), with healthy doses of Hindemith.

The Sonata in E-flat by York Bowen (1884-1961) typifies this composer’s sophisticated craft and lush Romanticism. Imagine Richard Strauss in his Ariadne auf  Naxos period, the later, leaner Rachmaninov and Arnold Bax in compositional cahoots, and you’ll get an idea of what to expect. The Allegro con spirito finale may be thick and full of notes, yet there’s still a lightness and spring to its triple meter lilt. It helps that Ian Zook navigates the wide interval leaps with unruffled ease and tonal evenness, while pianist Eric Ruple smoothly dances over Bowen’s often unwieldy chordal jumps and orchestrally-inspired textures.

Horn students seeking out novel repertoire will want to jump on these pieces, knowing full well that they’ll have to live up to the high performance standards set by Zook and Ruple. Zook also contributes informative and excellently written program notes. If you’re hankering for horn music that you haven’t heard before and will want to hear again (well maybe I’ll skip the Damase sonata’s first two movements next time around!), buy this disc.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: Musica Incognita: 20th Century Sonatas for Horn and Piano
Reference Recording: None for this collection

SIXTEN SYLVAN: Sonata for Horn & Piano Op. 7 (1963)
JEAN-MICHEL DAMASE: Sonata for Horn & Piano (1996)
LESLIE BASSETT: Sonata for Horn & Piano (1954)
YORK BOWEN: Sonata in E-flat for Horn & Piano (1937)

  • Ian Zook (horn); Eric Ruple (piano)

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