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
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.
Contact at artmusicreviews.co.uk