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Harl McDONALD (1899-1955)
Symphony No. 1, The Santa Fé Trail (1932) [19:47]
Two Hebraic Poems (from Three Poems on Aramaic Themes) (1935) [7:17]
Cakewalk (Scherzo from Symphony No. 4) (1937) [3:57]
San Juan CapistranoTwo Evening Pictures (1. The Mission; 2. Fiesta) (1938) [9:11]
Rhumba (Scherzo from Symphony No. 2, The Rhumba) (1934) [3:41]
Dance of the Workers (from Festival of the Workers) (1932) [3:03]
The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler (1939) [4:40]
From Childhood – Suite for Harp and Orchestra (1940) [20:30]
Alexander Hilsberg (violin) (Legend)
Edna Phillips (harp) (Suite)
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. 1935-1941. mono. Full discographic details at end of review
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC402 [72:06]

North-American orchestral tonalist Harl Macdonald stands to one side of the likes of Copland, Barber, Piston, Diamond and Schuman. If we need to group him then he is fairly comfortably in the company of Roy Harris, Grant Fletcher and the very unfairly neglected and completely admirable Cecil Effinger. In Macdonald's lighter mood he can veer into Don Gillis and Ferde Grofé territory. He was of a generation that basked in the conservative melodic trends that held sway in the musical world of 1930s and 1940s USA. That same approach seemed unadventurous by the time the 1950s arrived and passé in the 1960s, by which time the stars of Schuman and Piston were also beginning to dip.
 
Harl McDonald was born on a ranch in Colorado and was brought up in California. He became a member of the Los Angeles Philharmonic while still a teenager. A national prize enabled his attendance at the Leipzig Conservatory. He taught piano at the Philadelphia Musical Academy in 1924. Contact with Leopold Stokowski led to the première of The Santa Fé Trail Symphony in 1934 although it was Ormandy who recorded it. McDonald became the Philadelphia’s manager from 1939 until his death. As a composer he was an exponent of the great outdoors and of folk themes. That much is evident from the titles of his works and from listening to the music. Fashion moved its benevolence away from him after his death. This was a mercy in some ways. He did not have to live with neglect during his lifetime although the dates of the recording sessions suggest that things tapered off gently during his last two decades. This did not discourage him from composition as there are other symphonies which should be worth hearing in full rather than cherry-picked movements. These are Nos. 2 The Rhumba (1934), 3 for Soprano, Chorus and Orchestra Lamentations of Fu Hsuan (1935) and 4 Festival of the Workers (1937). We hear extracts from all of them here.
 
This disc is the first of what I would hope might be two volumes of new transfers. The audio magician in charge is Mark Obert-Thorn who here serves as both restoration engineer and producer. The sound has been responsibly cleaned and enlivened. The atmospheric mono originals are studio recordings made between 1935 and 1941. They emerge with a dumbfounding naturalness – juicily done and the temptations of totally silent disembodied backgrounds have thankfully been resisted. Surface detritus, cracks and gun-shot reports have all been purged. The disc acknowledges and thanks Nathan Brown and Charles Niss for the source material.
 
Symphony No. 1, The Santa Fé Trail is in three movements that encompass American pastoralism, Hispanic warmth in the manner of Ravel and a finale that mixes Iberian arrogance and jazzy activity with Blissian bustle. The Two Hebraic Poems are vividly coloured with very swoony Bloch-like nobility and a touchily explosive Hollywood- style swoon. The brief Cakewalk feels impetuously Tchaikovskian and tensely anxious. San Juan CapistranoTwo Evening Pictures is in two sections. The Mission with its tolling bell and devotional atmosphere rejoices in harp and string writing that verges just the right side of sentimental. It rises to majesty and then fades back being followed by a very lively Fiesta. The Rhumba is the Scherzo from Symphony No. 2. This bustles along, being as explosive as The Cakewalk and the second of the two Aramaic Poems. Stokowski gives it his all. Dance of the Workers is from Macdonald's Fourth Symphony; perhaps an unexpected title from 1930s USA. The music is lively with clever orchestration including a bassoon grunt and a gentle tam-tam shimmer. It closes gently where you might have expected Kabalevsky-style uproar.
 
The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler is a peppery piece which runs the gamut from Sibelian chipper to Bartókian folk celebration. There's a splatter and slash of dissonance in the allusion to fiddle tunes which is brusquely relished by soloist Alexander Hilsberg who was later to perform Macdonald's Violin Concerto. The piece ends with a light-hearted flourish.
 
The Suite for Harp and Orchestra From Childhood is a colourful piece here ripely recorded: a case of folksy meets Tchaikovskian 'Nutcrackerie'. I am grateful to Mark Obert-Thorn for identifying the tunes quoted: I saw three ships and Lavender blue; the second features The jolly miller and Three blind mice; while the third combines references to There was a lady loved a swain, Oranges and lemons and St. Paul’s steeple. In this it is a Transatlantic echo of Quilter's A Children's Overture.
 
From Childhood came about as a result of McDonald’s visit to the home of Philadelphia Orchestra harpist, Edna Phillips. She was singing old English nursery rhymes to her children while improvising accompaniments on the harp. McDonald suggested that a suite based on the songs would make a good piece. This led Phillips and her husband to commission him to write one.
 
In future issues we can look to hear Macdonald's Two Piano Concerto recorded by HMV in 1937 with Alexander Kelberine and Jeanne Behrend. Stokowski conducted the Philadelphia. There's also a Violin Concerto (1943), a wartime symphonic poem Bataan (1943) and a work written to mark the Linbergh kidnapping: the 1938 Lament for the Stolen, for women's chorus and orchestra.
 
This is inventive music yet unfailingly easy on the ear.

Rob Barnett

And a second review ...

I first came across Harl McDonald’s music via some recordings Stokowski made of his which were released on a 1993 Leopold Stokowski Society CD entitled ‘Stokowski conducts Philadelphia Rarities’: LSCD20. Pristine’s new release contains some overlap; The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler, the Dance of the Workers, and the Rhumba from the Second Symphony. The major McDonald work on the Stokowski Society disc was the exciting Concerto for two pianos and orchestra, but Pristine strikes back with rarities of its own in the shape of the Symphony No.1, From Childhood, and other smaller pieces.
 
McDonald was born near Boulder, Colorado in 1889 but grew up in California. He studied in Leipzig, pursuing a picaresque career as pianist and, Mark Obert-Thorn’s notes tell us, an occasional boxer. He was closely associated with Stokowski and with Philadelphia, becoming a director of the orchestra and then, in 1939, its manager.
 
Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra recording of the Symphony No.1 The Santa Fé Trail is receiving its CD premiere in this release. It’s a delightfully colourful and vibrant work, taut and filmic, and cast in three programmatic-sounding movements. The fast and furious descriptive writing in the central one, The Spanish Settlements, functions as a sizzling scherzo whilst the finale (The Wagon-Trains of the Pioneers) exudes the kind of brassy confidence and ruggedness that marks the best and most characteristic of McDonald’s writing. I assume the wind chorale that emerges represents the pioneers’ thanksgiving for their safe passage. Ormandy also recorded the Two Hebraic Poems, warm but somewhat romanticised-generalized pieces. The second suggests dance patterns via more conventional orchestration. The Cakewalk is an extracted movement, the scherzo, from McDonald’s Symphony No.4 of 1937. Again, it’s quite sumptuously orchestrated – one could hardly fault him for thinking big, given the orchestra for which he was writing – but the tap dancing and soft shoe episodes give it zest. Cleverly, McDonald harnesses light American vernacular to late-Romantic expressive orchestral power.
 
Koussevitzky conducted some McDonald in Boston, and his recording of San Juan Capistrano has appeared before on CD. The sonorous first picture contrasts vividly with the light-hearted vivacity of the sunshine-glowing Fiesta movement, complete with a properly ruminative B section. The Rhumba is a fine vehicle for Stokowski’s orchestra and for himself, whilst Dance of the Workers (from Festival of the Workers) shows the composer’s affiliations with the terpsichorean, spiced with an element of social conscience. The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler showcases the violin playing of the orchestra’s concertmaster, Alexander Hilsberg, who explores the folk-fiddling section adeptly, taking care to contrast it with the more patrician romantic elements elsewhere. Don’t overlook the cheeky payoff. From Childhood is a suite for harp — Edna Phillips, for whom it was written — and orchestra. The Philadelphia is conducted by the composer. Deftly coloured but not wispy, it is unapologetically lyric in the central movement. The children’s songs that are evoked emerge very nicely in this well-balanced recording.
 
McDonald’s music is full of colour and freshness, and is never dull. He has the advantage here of some of the world’s best conductors and orchestras, and we have the advantage of excellent restorations.
 
Jonathan Woolf

Full discographic details 
Symphony No. 1, “The Santa Fé Trail” (1932)
Recorded 20 October 1940 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix nos.: CS 056567-1, 056568-1, 056569-2, 056570-1, 056571-1 & 056572-1
First issued on Victor 17765/7 in album M-754
 
Two Hebraic Poems (from Three Poems on Aramaic Themes) (1935)
Recorded 5 April 1937 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix nos.: CS 07572-2 & 04003-1
First issued on Victor 14903
 
Cakewalk (Scherzo from Symphony No. 4) (1937)
Recorded 9 May 1938 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CS 022376-1
First issued on Victor 15377
 
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
 
San Juan Capistrano – Two Evening Pictures (1938)
1. The Mission
2. Fiesta
Recorded 8 November 1939 in Symphony Hall, Boston
Matrix nos.: CS 043582-2A & 043583-2A
First issued on Victor 17229
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
 
Rhumba (Scherzo from Symphony No. 2, “The Rhumba”) (1934)
Recorded 25 November 1935 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CS 94619-2A
First issued on Victor 8919
 
Dance of the Workers (from Festival of the Workers) (1932)
Recorded 25 November 1935 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CS 94620-1
First issued on Victor 8919
 
The Legend of the Arkansas Traveler (1939)
Alexander Hilsberg, solo violin
Recorded 27 March 1940 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CS 047815-1
First issued on Victor 18069
 
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
 
From Childhood – Suite for Harp and Orchestra (1940)
Edna Phillips, harp
Recorded 15 March 1941 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix nos.: CS 062564-1, 062565-1A, 062566-1, 062567-1A, 062568-1 & 062569-1
First issued on Victor 18256/8 in album M-839
 
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Harl McDonald