John McCormack (1884-1945) is a singer well known
for his light velvety tenor voice. He was born in Ireland and
at the age of 18 was sent to Dublin. There he was ‘discovered’
by the choirmaster of a Dublin cathedral choir he had joined.
He was encouraged to prepare and enter an Irish singing contest
a year later and won its prestigious Gold award. This brought
a new confidence and he went to Italy for vocal studies in Milan.
The next year he appeared in Mascagni and Gounod operas with average
success but an audition for La Scala was unsuccessful because
his voice was not considered robust enough for the weight of Italian
opera. He created a sensation at a Boosey Ballad Concert in London
(1907), an appearance so successful that Walter Legge of HMV fame
always believed this recital, rather than his later Covent Garden
début, opened the door to a career in England.
From what we hear, McCormack was a strong lyrical
tenor with a clean edge to the voice. He is comfortable with
the Verdi and Puccini arias heard here but lacks the power of
a Pavarotti. With ballad singing he seems much more at home.
A particular quality is the way he can hold on to a final note
and let it gently die without any touch of aural instability.
Such quality of breath control is amazing.
Although he appeared in America and Europe in opera,
his focus was on recitals and recordings. For this, his repertoire
was wide and covered everything from operatic arias to parlour
ballads. The selection on this fifth volume covers a number
of operatic numbers of Verdi, Schubert and Mascagni as well
as some sheet music favourites like Benedict’s The Moon hath
lit her lamp, Balfe’s When other lips, D’Hardelot’s
Because, Lehmann’s Bonnie Wee Thing, and Sanderson’s
Until. The Irish are well represented in the Romance
of Athlone (McCormack’s home area), the Lily of Killarney,
and It’s a long way to Tipperary.
In Ava Maria, the piano anticipates the
voice nicely, but Kreisler’s violin accompaniment tends to flag.
McCormack’s diction in Lohr’s The Little Grey Home is
exemplary with consonants clear yet without exaggeration. Tracks
3 to 21 come from the same recording sessions (6-9 April 1914),
averaging six songs per day. The musician/singer arrangement
is noticeably altered after the second day as the orchestra
is further recessed. The Aida track, O terra addio is
perhaps the least successful. In Benedict’s The Moon hath
raised her lamp, McCormack shines out admirably in the duet.
There seems some anomaly in the recording of romantic
arias and sweet-sounding, melodious songs at a time when the
earthy ravages of the First World War had just begun. These
are however American Victor recordings, far removed from the
theatre of war. McCormack had settled down in America and to
the dismay of Britain had taken American citizenship. During
this period, the recording studio was still hampered be the
need for delicate positioning of singer and orchestral elements
around the bell of a large acoustical ‘trumpet’. Yet it still
managed to achieve an excellent balance between orchestra and
singer. The characteristic reediness and bias to top frequencies
is very evident. I just wonder whether less treble on equalisation
might have improved the transfers.
Naxos has a lot of competition for this series.
There are: 2 USA reissues; 10 UK Pearl/Opal/Flapper; 2 ASV Living
Era; 3 Nimbus; 2 Romophone; 5 EMI; 5 Symposium; 5 Naxos; 1 Memoir;
1 Pro-Arte; 2 Outlet Music; 1 Regis; 1 Conifer; 1 K-tel; 1 Prism
and 1 Evergreen CD, all dedicated to McCormack recordings (about
41 hours worth)! Many of the CDs are different transfers of the
same material even though McCormack’s output of recordings is
Raymond J Walker