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Harl McDONALD (1899-1955)
The Music - Volume 3 (1943-56)
Violin Concerto (1943) [19:24]
Elegy and Battle Hymn (1942) [12:33]
Symphony No. 3, A Tragic Cycle (1935) [31:53]
Builders of America - Washington and Lincoln (1953) [15:23]
Alexander Hilsberg (violin); George Newton (bass-baritone) (Elegy and Battle Hymn; Claude Rains (narrator) (Builders); Emelina de Vita (soprano); Philadelphia Orchestra Chorus/William R Smith; Musical Art Society of Camden/Henry Smith (Symphony).
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (Symphony; Concerto); Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Fabien Sevitzky (Elegy and Battle Hymn); Columbia Chamber Orchestra/Harl McDonald (Builders).
Live recordings except for Builders of America (recorded in 1953). Mono. ADD

Pristine Records continues its series of the archive recordings of Harl McDonald, once a prominent composer of the American scene and a power in the Philadelphia music world in mid-century. For earlier discs in the series: Vol. 1: review; Vol. 2: review ~ review. Especially notable is the live version of McDonald’s Symphony No.3, surely the most important work in the entire series.

McDonald’s Violin Concerto may remind some listeners of those by Sibelius or Respighi. However, the first movement of the McDonald work cannot match the vigor of the works of the Finnish and Italian composers, although McDonald’s second theme is genial and attractive. The slow movement has an undulating and somewhat plaintive theme with a Spanish flavor, perhaps harking back to the composer’s childhood in the American Southwest. The final allegro moderato proceeds at breakneck speed but also evinces a Spanish coloring.

The Elegy and Battle Hymn comprises McDonald’s reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is scored for singer/speaker. The Elegy’s orchestral introduction is impressive and beautifully scored. However, the vocal line is not nearly as powerful, an impression strengthened by George Newton’s strident delivery. The Battle Hymn is effective but sounds to present-day ears like the background to a 1940’s Hollywood movie. It is easy to see why McDonald later incorporated this material into his orchestral suite My Country at War (see Volume 2)-it is much more potent as a purely orchestral work.

Builders of America on first sight would seem to be an expansion of Copland’s Lincoln Portrait with Washington and a chorus added. But unlike the Copland, McDonald’s work is scored for chamber orchestra and the general sense is of a community work, similar to Roy Harris’ Lincoln Symphony, rather than that of a concert work. It has prominent parts for piano and solo woodwinds and is more harmonically adventurous than the other works on this disc. It would merit revival by community choral groups.

If Builders of America seems at first to be reminiscent of Copland, McDonald’s Symphony No. 3, A Tragic Cycle, may remind one of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde at first glance: a symphony for soloist (only one) and orchestra (with chorus) on old Chinese poems. But it would be wrong to jump to conclusions. McDonald’s symphony has nothing Chinese about it except the texts of the poems and in its emotional content is much more like Rachmaninoff’s’ symphony The Bells than like Das Lied von der Erde. But McDonald’s work is starker than that of Rachmaninoff with the soloist veering from song to Sprechstimme and some of the melodic material being fairly dissonant.

The symphony begins with a muscular passage that steadily becomes more agitated as McDonald develops his material with hushed choral passages alternating with a lament by the soloist. The slow movement features dramatic use of orchestral bells and agitated vocalises from the soprano before a touching coda. The scherzo is almost frantic in its effect and the trio section passes by almost without notice. In the last movement the bells return to accompany an inspiring summation of the symphony’s thematic material with a moving part for the soloist and some noble music for the chorus before a fine ending on horn and bells.

This disc differs from its two predecessors in that, except for Builders of America, the recordings derive from live concerts rather than studio productions. Therefore, Mark Obert-Thorn’s auditory magic is even more indispensable than in Volumes 1 and 2. In the case of the Symphony and the Elegy and Battle Hymn he comes through superbly and one feels sure no one else could have done so well with this source material. The original recording of the Violin Concerto presents more of a problem as the sound of the solo violin is so shrill that I had to turn down the treble complete just to make it listenable. But this is a small price to pay for the opportunity to hear works by a composer who was important in his day but forgotten along with so many other others when American music underwent such a drastic change around 1960.

William Kreindler

Previous review: Rob Barnett



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