> John McCormack Irish Tenor Ballads [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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John McCormack
Irish Tenor Ballads
Gerald Moore, piano
Edwin Schneider, piano
Spencer Clay, piano
Orchestras conducted by Rosario Bourdon, Lawrance Collingwood
Recorded 1916-1941
REGIS RRC 1092 [75’15]


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The Star of the County Down
The Garden where the Praties Grow
The Kerry Dance
Down by the Salley Gardens
Mother Machree
The Rose of Tralee
Believe me, if all those endearing young charms
The Green Isle of Erin
Off to Philadelphia
The Dawning of the Day
Oft in the Stilly Night
Kathleen Mavourneen
When Irish eyes are smiling
Bantry Bay
The Old House
By the short cut to the Rosses
The Irish Emigrant
Love Thee, Dearest, Love Thee
She Mov’d thro’ the Fair
Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen
The bard of Armagh
Molly Brannigan
Londonderry Air
I hear You Calling me

No one should be without a collection of McCormack’s Irish songs and ballads. His legato phrasing, his breath control, unimpeachable diction, the beauty of his tone, its range from floated head voice to a plangent descent to the high baritonal were the mechanics of the tenor’s singing, whether it was Mozart or Thomas Moore. Which is not to imply a promiscuous use of his resources and their indiscriminate employment. On the contrary the ballads were neither ennobled nor elevated by such beauty – they were, rather, open to the inflections and sensitivities of his voice, and their meaning explored from within, in an act of sublimation and exploration.

McCormack’s was truly the art that conceals art. The supposed artlessness of his singing of these songs is in fact a supreme artfulness. There are such metrical subtleties here, slightly lengthened or shortened note values, such winning phrasing, that it is impossible to resist and nor would one want to, whatever conceptions or misconceptions one might hold of minstrelsy of this type. The level of identification and sheer characterisation is pervasive. Listen to his singing of the phrase the image of me in The Garden where the Praties grow with its saucy half chuckle and onrushing breathlessness. These apparently simple songs are usually accompanied by an interior life of their own. In The Rose of Tralee the ardent head note is accompanied by an expressive "cracked" note. Or in The Green Isle of Erin where McCormack throbs passionately in a way not dissimilar to the operatic – a path he spurned early in his career. Oft in the Stilly Night is one of my favourites in this collection of familiar and imperishable records and is significant for the colouristic use McCormack makes of the song, the shading of the words sad memory and days and the sense that the song’s meaning and the singer’s experience of it are coalescent. In Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen, a forlorn tale of love and loss, the dramatic interiority of the flummoxed, increasingly desperate, ultimate resigned, youth is conveyed with theatrical and expressive intensity in a way which lifts the song to the heights of lyrical monologue. Elsewhere and everywhere attention to detail is accompanied by understanding of text. The bulk of the recordings are accompanied by Edwin Schneider, McCormack’s loyal pianist for many years and by Gerald Moore who took over toward the end at a time when the tenor’s voice had begun somewhat to fray (it’s also instructive to listen to the Moore-accompanied sides to hear how diminishing vocal resources can be harnessed). Some of the transfers leave rather a lot to be desired. When Irish Eyes are smiling may be the earliest here, recorded in 1916, but is very swishy. On several tracks there is also something reminiscent of our old friend Artificial Stereo; a rather awful hollow echo is the result. Never mind, McCormack vincit omnia. There are many McCormack compilations around and this is a decent selection.

Jonathan Woolf

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