The Music of Harl McDONALD, Vol. 2 = Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra; My Country at War – Symphonic Suite; Songs of Conquest; Children’s Symphony; SMITH (trans. McDONALD): Miniature Suite – various – Pristine Audio

by | Jan 19, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

The Music of Harl McDONALD, Vol. 2 = Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra; My Country at War – Symphonic Suite; Songs of Conquest; Children’s Symphony; SMITH (trans. McDonald): Miniature Suite – Jeanne Behrend & Alexandre Kelberine, pianos/ Philadelphia Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski/ Eugene Ormandy/ Harl McDonald/ University of Pennsylvania Choral Society/ Arthur Fiedler’s Sinfonietta/ Arthur Fiedler – Pristine Audio PASC 430, 78:06 [avail. in several formats from] ****:

Producer and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn turns for a second time to the music of Harl McDonald (1899–1955), a California-born composer who in later years served as manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra during both the Stokowski and Ormandy eras. The Leopold Stokowski Society, under the rubric of “Stokowski Rarities,” issued the 1936 Concerto for 2 Pianos on the Cala label (CACD 0501).  Stokowski recorded the Concerto on 19 April 1937, and the performance still resonates with a conservative but effective syntax, particularly in its middle movement, Theme and Variations. An advocate of musical multi-culturalism, McDonald has the last movement move to a “south of the border” modality, a spirited Juarezca, marked Allegro and rampant with sultry and jabbing, rhumba accents. It might have been a good, choreographic vehicle for Xavier Cugat and Abbe Lane, if they had Stokowski’s orchestra available.

A good deal of McDonald’s music was once available on shellac but it has mostly fallen, undeservedly, into oblivion. Eugene Ormandy here conducts My Country at War (from Victor set MM 592) in a performance from 1943. The suite results from a spontaneous reaction to the American involvement in WW II. The Overture: 1941 presents a sober sense of menace tinted by moments of lyric melancholy and brass resolve. The second movement, Bataan, remains the famous “programmatic” movement.  As a symphonic poem, Bataan exerts a definite sense of power and orchestral facility, the sound reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero crossed with Debussy’s Fetes. A brooding movement that exploits low strings and winds, Elegy allows a solo cello to carry its lament over a pizzicato bass line. Hymn of the People reasserts a militant optimism, especially since the main tune, Battle Hymn of the Republic, receives Technicolor treatment.

Songs of Conquest (1937; rev. 1939) presents four meditations from the poetry of Phelps Putnam, mainly on the spirit of those pioneers whose achievement in founding our nation has come to a crisis in the world situation. Harl McDonald leads the University of Pennsylvania Choral Society in what amounts to a tacit plea that our commitment to the Monroe Doctrine of isolationism has not forfeited our right to proclaim the ascent of man as inevitable. McDonald arranged the music of John Christopher Smith – Handel’s friend and amanuensis – drawing the Miniature Suite from the 1784 collection My Hand and Musicke Book. Arthur Fiedler leads his Sinfonietta in a reading of the three movements from 22 May 1939. The last movement Allemande makes a vivacious, robust impression.

McDonald leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in his Children’s Symphony on Familiar Tunes (1948) on a CBS record issued in 1950 (ML 2141). The four- movement structure captures a imaginations of youthful auditors by filling out tunes like “London Bridge” and “The Farmer in the Dell” with symphonic textures.  Effective kitsch, certainly, if musical nostalgia sweetens the musical lollipop.

—Gary Lemco

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