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John McDONALD
Airy - Music for Violin and Piano
Lyrical Study, op.10 no.2 (1985) [2:54]
Poem, op.12b (1985) [4:43]
Brief Pastiche of a Theme by Schoenberg, op.15 (1985) [5:13]
Four Single-Minded Miniatures, op.27 (1987) [6:47]
Mad Dance, op.66 (1986/88) [1:25]
Lily Events - A Suite of Seven Little Studies, op.97 (1989) [7:18]
Sonata for solo violin, op.219 (1994) [13:41]
Suite of Six Curt Pieces, op.326 (1999-2000) [7:35]
Lines after Keats, op.336 (2000) [5:46]
Airy, op.436 (2007-08) [8:37]
Joanna Kurkowicz (violin)
John McDonald (piano)
rec. Granoff Music Center, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts, May 2010.
BRIDGE 9402 [65:06]

John McDonald is doubtless a household name in many parts, although it is likely to be a different John McDonald each time. This one, an American music professor in his fifties(?), has featured on a number of recordings over the last decade, but this new release from Bridge appears to be a first in monographic terms. He describes himself as "a composer who tries to play the piano and a pianist who tries to compose", which is unfair on both counts - on this recording he does both jobs very well.
 
All works on the programme are inspired by two Polish violinists of McDonald's acquaintance, Joanna Kurkowicz and the long-lived Roman Totenberg (1911-2012), for whose violin students McDonald used to act as pianist. This album is dedicated to the latter's memory.
 
McDonald's titles get straight to the point. Brief Pastiche of a Theme by Schoenberg gives some indication of what to expect throughout in musical terms - a combination of lyricism and frequent atonality, often of a reflective nature. Most reveal McDonald as a composer of miniaturist studies - only the Sonata op.219 and to a lesser degree Airy diverge from this. Several works are based on poetical sources - the section titles of Lily Events are indeed actual lines from a poem.
 
McDonald himself describes many of these pieces as 'songs without words'. That certainly works for Poem op.12b and Lily Events, but in general most listeners will likely find such a characterisation misleading, given that the idiom is closer to Schoenberg than it is to Mendelssohn. In American terms, McDonald could be said to be less accessible than John Corigliano (Naxos 8.559306) but more so than Stefan Wolpe (Naxos 8.559262, 8.559265), although there is in fact some overlap with both in terms of warmth (Corigliano) and language (Wolpe).
 
On the other hand, Joanna Kurkowicz's 1699 Guarneri does indeed sing its way through the recital with dulcet grace. Her recordings for Chandos of the (nearly) complete violin concertos of Grażyna Bacewicz (CHAN 10533, CHAN 10673) - and indeed Alfred Schnittke on Bridge (9104) a decade before - are more of a must-have for the collector, yet some at least of McDonald's works would not be out of their depth in any violinist's repertory. That is particularly true of both the imaginative title track and of the Solo Sonata, a memorable work with a doleful middle movement which also finds McDonald at his most audience-friendly.
 
The music is very well recorded, roomy and fairly warm. Thankfully Kurkowicz, unlike many violinists, does not snort or gulp whilst playing. The English-only booklet notes are detailed, with an introduction by the composer himself plus his own useful remarks on each work. These are followed by a few words - or 'essay', as the booklet optimistically has it - on McDonald's music by one of his colleagues at Tufts University, who, in true academic style, manages to use a lot of words to produce a generic testimonial that might have been computer-generated.
 
Byzantion
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