The Music of HARL MCDONALD Volume 3 = var. orch. & cond. – Pristine Audio

A series of non-commercial releases graces Vol. 3, devoted to the works of Harl McDonald.

The Music of HARL MCDONALD Volume 3 = Violin Concerto; Elegy and Battle Hymn; Symphony No. 3 “A Tragic Cycle”; Builders of America (Washington and Lincoln) – Alexander Hilsberg, v./ Philadelphia Orch./ Eugene Ormandy/ Geroge Newton, bass-bar./ Indianapolis Sym. Orch./ Fabien Sevitzky (Elegy and Battle Hymn)/ Emelina De Vita. sop./ Philadelphia Orch. Chorus/ Musical Art Society of Camden/ Eugene Ormandy (Symphony)/ Claude Rains, narr./ Columbia Ch. Orch. and Chorus/ Harl McDonald (Builders of America) – Pristine Audio PASC 491, 79:13 [avail. in various formats from www.pristineclassical.com] *****:

Whether the music of American composer, pianist, conductor, and administrator Harl McDonald (1899-1955) will endure remains debatable, but given his service to the Philadelphia Orchestra (1939-1955) and his devotion to the patriotic fervor of the period subsequent to Pearl Harbor, his work remains with us through the efforts of Pristine and audio restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn. Excepted from the 1953 studio session with actor Claude Rains from 26 April 1953, all of the performances on this disc derive from live broadcast performances. The Violin Concerto (1943) certainly warrants more frequent performances, given the virtuosic and ardently arioso reading given by concertmaster Alexander Hilsberg (1900-1961) in a live recording with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra from 17 March 1945. After a potent first movement Allegro moderato – which features a muscular, extended cadenza – the lyrical Andante seems to take its melos directly from Edward Elgar. The orchestral tissue – bucolic, gloomy and melancholic – seems borrowed from a Sibelius symphonic poem. The last movement exploits the violin’s high register and Hilsberg’s capacity for double and triple stops, in a witty and askew dance that sails in the manner of Khachaturian. The episodes convey a feeling of a country square dance, or of actor Walter Huston in The Devil and Daniel Webster. The last pages become quite hectic, with a sudden denouement for a finale.

McDonald took an essay by Paul Gilson as the basis for his Elegy and Battle Hymn, a lament for the victims of Pearl Harbor. The piece for bass-baritone and orchestra would be incorporated into a larger score, the symphonic suite My Country at War.  The theme of lives “destroyed by treachery” returns as a constant trope, with a promise of retribution. This performance (28 January 1943) represents the world premier. Fabien Sevitzky works his Indianapolis bass line with great fervor in its tremolos, and the Indianapolis winds and brass have many moments of punctuated drama. The Battle Hymn, strictly jingoistic and rife with Hollywood flair, has aspects of a Russian march that gathers torrential insistence. The strings sub-divide into a kind of concerto grosso texture before the full orchestra once more breaks forth, now into the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I would suggest watching the film The Purple Heart, especially the scene in which the insidious Richard Loo shoots himself.

McDonald set the Lamentation poems by Chinese poet Fu Hsuan in four movements as his Symphony No. 3, “A Tragic Cycle,” premiered by Leopold Stokowski in January 1936.  Mounted richly in terms of scoring and orchestral color, the music eschews Mahler’s style of exotic chromaticism in Das Lied von der Erde.  Instead, the scoring reminds us of Richard Strauss, as cross-fertilized by Randall Thompson. The live performance under Eugene Ormandy (17 November 1956) came as a memorial concert for the composer, who had served the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years. Without the translated texts, it becomes hard to discern the nature of the words, especially with the audience’s coughing succinctly on the beat. Emilina de Vita, however, declaims, “A voice whispers” loudly enough. When her voice enters the stratosphere, I (unfortunately) recalled Susan Foster Kane’s efforts at the Chicago Lyric Opera. “Once more” starts the grim procession for the Adagio maestoso second movement. We do enter once more, not into the breach, but into a tempest that soon transforms into an elegy. Marked “Marziale con ismania,” the third movement exhibits an angry, aggressive affect close to “Mars” in Holst’s The Planets. The last movement, Molto adagio – Molto agitato, reveals Wagnerian influences, but the last few minutes become valedictory and elegiac, especially given the composer’s stated intent, “to uncover. . .four phases of tragedy that were unlimited by racial conventions.”

For his Builders of America cantata, McDonald takes Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait as a model in order to celebrate George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The text taken from a poem by Edward Shenton, the patriotic exhortations find resonant realization from actor Claude Rains, who had won an award for Best Diction in the American Theater. With piano, chorus, and orchestra, the piece assumes an epic character we know from Beethoven’s Op. 80. Mark Obert-Thorn notes that flute principal William Kincaid of the Philadelphia Orchestra lends his talent to the “Columbia Chamber Ensemble.”  The constant repetition of the words, “George was a brave man” become rather trite, in spite of the work’s exalted ambitions. Add the Rains performance to your LP or CD of Enoch Arden with Glenn Gould, and you have a solid hour of a magnificent vocal instrument.

—Gary Lemco

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