WGBH Radio WGBH Radio theclassicalstation.org

John Mccormack: A Star Ascending, Odeon Recordings 1906-1909

John Mccormack
Release Date: 04/01/2014 
Label:  Marston   Catalog #: 54005  
Composer:  TraditionalT.D. SullivanArthur Warren DarleyAndrew Cherry,   ... 
Performer:  John McCormack
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Mono 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

The years covered by these recordings, 1906 through 1909, aren’t usually investigated in modern rereleases devoted to the art of John McCormack. They present him on the way to the full flowering of his talent and skill, but still a few years away from those heights. Nor do they have the charm of the much later recordings, after the voice had begun to fade but an extraordinary charisma hung about his efforts. Even the early 1904 Edison-Bell cylinders—with nasal tone, pinched top, poor breath support, primitive phrasing, little dynamic variety, and only an ease with ornaments vaguely hinting at the future—receive more attention, due to the cachet of revealing the dawn (or more accurately, pre-dawn) of a great performer. Yet there’s much to Read more enjoy from these Odeon platters, and the judicious selection of nine Edison Bell and Russell Hunting cylinders from the same time.

These recordings commenced around the conclusion of an intensified period of vocal study with Vincenzo Sabatini in Milan. By McCormack’s own account, Sabatini heard him and stated, “I cannot place your voice, because God did that.” We can infer from the endless work on scales and vocal exercises (no songs, no arias) which subsequently occurred over many months that Sabatini recognized raw potential in the tenor requiring training from the ground up, as well as the need for some enthusiasm at the front end. McCormack himself would later remark that acquiring a mezza voce was one goal of Sabatini’s, and that another was an even production, including freeing up the top of his range. His own highly critical ear, attentive to the many opera performances he attended in Italy and back in London, built upon that initial training, as did further operatic role coaching with his teacher. The recordings that make up this 4-CD set, the failures as much as the successes, point to how quickly McCormack was maturing as an artist. The rest would come with time.

The contents divide into several musical groups. First, there are the Victorian ballads and religious numbers. The former in particular supplied McCormack’s breakthrough, when he secured a contract for the Boosey Ballad Concerts. (At a time before radio, with phonographs still in their infancy, home musical entertainment consisted in part of singing ballads; and sheet music publishers such as Boosey & Co. put on prestigious concerts where good singers performed their latest wares to attract a buying public.) McCormack quickly drew notice in 1907 with these. Quite a number were recorded. Their sentiments are as trite as Hallmark cards, their music often as undistinguished as a schematic of several sequential harmonies. But even something as pedestrian as Parted (composed by Alicia Scott, the sister of the tenor’s patron, John Murray Scott) is sung here by McCormack with a sincerity, sensitivity to setting, and clear enunciation that turns it, however briefly, into art. Listening to this, or Liddle’s Farewell , or Clay’s I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby , is to hear the beginnings of the tenor’s way to transmute base metal into gold.

Much of the Italian popular content on these discs frankly doesn’t find McCormack at his best. In later years his impressions upon hearing the 1909 Ideale in this collection were noted by a friend, with comments of “imitation Caruso,” “vulgar! imitation de Lucia!” and after one slur, “Ah God, man, make up your mind!” If you hear that recording now, you can easily picture precisely the points at which McCormack, fresh from his unsuccessful attempts to establish himself operatically in Italy, strove to sound like the great singers he’d heard live. Those moments are managed well overall, and his enunciation is, as always after Sabatini, superlative, but the effects don’t fit in the overall context of the more reticent, less Italianate delivery of each piece. The diminuendo from Buzzi-Peccia’s Lolita of the same period is integrated better, but it still can’t be said to come near the magic that the best Italian tenori di grazia of his day discovered in these works.

(As a gloss on this, I recall listening to a radio transcription of Balfe’s “When other lips” from the late 1940s with the late Met tenor Tommy Heyward, and turning to him at one point saying, “You’re doing McCormack!” At which he nodded his head repeatedly with enthusiasm and great seriousness, saying, “Oh, yes!” and I laughed out loud. He considered McCormack a superlative singer and stylist; and a good McCormack imitation was not a bad thing at all.)

On the other hand, the Irish and pseudo-Irish material here is already very fine. The silver lightness of his voice was still in development, and the subtler colors would grow in depth with the years, but he’s telling stories with each song. It can be McCormack and no one else in his 1909 My Dark Rosaleen , with that bright, sweet tone in the upper reaches of the piece. The phrasing is immaculate, the overall narrative conception as breathtaking as any classical song he ever recorded so successfully in later years. Or check out Trottin’ to the Fair from 1908: the charming, deceptively simple surface concealing a wealth of art that only reveals itself with repeated listening.

The simpler, more poetically inclined operatic selections find McCormack growing into form. His 1907 English language Flower Song pays disconcerting attention to the horribly awkward translation, which he seemingly values above the music, but the opening phrases are as melting as one could wish. Two years later, his Italian version has more ease, and despite a stentorian moment early on, a curiously French purity to it. He voices across the bars with rare beauty, though one wishes he didn’t opt for the loud climax. With “Spirto gentil” we are within visible distance of the stylist who in 1916 recorded “Il mio tesoro”: the same breath control, comprehension of bel canto technique, and management of detail.

Ward Marston’s notes describe his willingness to proceed with a release of the McCormack Odeons more than a decade ago, save for a lack funds to financially handle such an undertaking. In the last two years it became possible with generous outside assistance. More than 300 discs were lent for the project, with common sides available in as many as eight duplicates. Rare titles sometimes had to be pieced together with the least worn sections of poor copies. Problems with turntable speed (which were far from standardized at the time these recordings were made) were resolved in part by working from the premise that speeds tended to remain constant with only slight variation within any given session. Where choices had to made between odd key transpositions and a timbre and vocal production that sounded correct for McCormack, Marston typically went with the latter. In so far as someone not in his shoes can walk the distance, I think he made the right decision. No one can guess at this date why every transposition was chosen by a given artist a century ago, but our ears can tell the difference when an artist whose voice we know and love sounds seriously amiss.

This isn’t listening for newcomers to McCormack’s art. Those are well served, elsewhere. But from the earliest sessions it’s possible to chart the increasing confidence, skill, and vocal ability of McCormack over these four important years of his artistic development. Consequently, this is a must have for any McCormack enthusiast. Recommended.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
Read less

Works on This Recording

1.
A Nation Once Again by Traditional
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
2.
God Save Ireland by T.D. Sullivan
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1867 
3.
The Boys of Wexford by Arthur Warren Darley
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
4.
The Croppy Boy by Traditional
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Written: Ireland 
5.
The Dear Little Shamrock by Andrew Cherry
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
6.
The snowy-breasted pearl by Traditional
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Written: Ireland 
7.
The Green Isle of Erin by Joseph Roeckel
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
8.
Kathleen Mavourneen by Frederick Crouch
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
9.
Come Back to Erin by Claribel
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
10.
Killarney by Michael Balfe
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1862; Ireland 
11.
My Dark Rosaleen by Alicia Adelaide Needham-Morgan
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
12.
Savourneen Deelish by Traditional
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
13.
Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen by Traditional
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
14.
Oft in the stilly night by Traditional
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
15.
Absent by John W. Metcalf
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
16.
A Farewell by Samuel Liddle
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: Romantic 
Written: England 
17.
Love’s Golden Treasury by J.M. Capel
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
18.
Like stars above by William Henry Squire
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: England 
19.
Cavalleria Rusticana: O Lola, ch'ai di latti la cammisa by Pietro Mascagni
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1890; Italy 
20.
I Pagliacci: Recitar!...Vesti la giubba by Ruggero Leoncavallo
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Italy 
21.
The Awakening of a Perfect Spring by Harold Fraser-Simson
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
22.
Rigoletto: La donna è mobile by Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1851; Italy 
23.
Thora by Stephen Adams
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
24.
Tosca: E lucevan le stelle by Giacomo Puccini
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1900; Italy 
25.
A Child’s Song by Charles Marshall
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
26.
I Sent My Love Two Roses by Harold Fraser-Simson
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
27.
The Lord is My Light by Frances Allitsen
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: Romantic 
Written: England 
28.
Rigoletto: Questa o quella by Giuseppe Verdi
Performer:  John McCormack (Tenor)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1851; Italy 

Customer Reviews

Be the first to review this title
Review This Title