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John McCORMACK: Acoustic Recordings (1910-1911)
John William CHERRY (?)
01. Dear Little Shamrock [04:05
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)
02. Rigoletto: Bella figlia dell'amore [03:50]
with Nellie Melba, soprano / Mario Sammarco, baritone / Edna Thornton, contralto
Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
03. Faust: All'erta! All'erta [02:52]
with Nellie Melba, soprano / Mario Sammarco, baritone
04. Faust: All'erta! All'erta [02:51]
with Nellie Melba, soprano / Mario Sammarco, baritone
George A. BARKER (?)
05. The Irish Emigrant [04:00]
Frederic Nicolls CROUCH (?)
06. Kathleen Mavourneen [03:43]
Charles MARSHALL (c 1859 – 1927)
07. I Hear You Calling Me [03:49]
Traditional
08. Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms [03:20]
Liza LEHMANN (1862 – 1918)
09. In a Persian Garden: Ah! Moon of My Delight [04:22]
Traditional
10. Molly Bawn (arr. D. MacMurrough) [03:39]
 Ernest R. BALL (?) / Chauncey OLCOTT (1858 – 1932)
11. Mother Machree [03:19]
Victor HERBERT (1859 – 1924)
12. Naughty Marietta: I'm Falling in Love with Someone [03:14]
Dermot MACMURROUGH (?)
13. Macushla [03:06]
Jacob BLUMENTHAL (?)
14. An Evening Song [04:30]
Traditional
15. She is Far from the Land [04:23]
Attilo PARELLI (?)
16. The Happy Morning Waits (L'Alba Nascente) [02:50]
Georges BIZET (1838 – 1875)
17. Les Pecheurs de Perles: Del tempio al limitar [03:11]
with Mario Sammarco, baritone
18. Les Pecheurs de Perles: Del tempio al limitar [03:04]
with Mario Sammarco, baritone
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868)
19. Les Soirées Musicales, No. 12: Li Marinari [03:20]
with Mario Sammarco, baritone
20. Les Soirées Musicales, No. 11: Mira la bianca luna [03:28]
with Emmy Destinn, soprano
21. Il Barbiere di Siviglia: O il meglio mi scordavo... Numero guindici [03:27]
with Mario Sammarco, baritone
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834 – 1886)
22. La Gioconda: Badoer questa notte... O grido di quest' anima [04:19]
with Mario Sammarco, baritone
John McCormack (tenor), Victor Orchestra (tracks 1, 5 – 19), New Symphony Orchestra/Landon Ronald (tracks 2 – 4), Studio Orchestra/Percy Pitt (tracks 20 – 22)
Recorded 1910 - 1911
Ward Marston, archivist and restoration producer
John McCormack - Edition, Vol 2
NAXOS 8.110329 [78:41]

 

John McCormack (1884–1945) was one of the most popular tenors of the acoustic era and that popularity continued long afterwards. His only serious contender was Enrico Caruso and in some years McCormack surpassed even him in popularity and record sales. But there was really no competition between them. There can hardly have been two singers as diametrically opposed as these two. Caruso was a man of the opera house while McCormack retired from opera quite early - he regarded himself as a lousy actor - and concentrated on the concert stage. Caruso’s was a powerful, dark-hued, baritonal tenor voice while McCormack’s was light, lyrical, silvery. Neither of them fought shy of popular music but Caruso sang the Neapolitan songs of his home country while the Irish-born McCormack excelled in Victorian ballads, old Irish folksongs and popular ditties, a fair amount of which are found on this disc. Both were prolific recording artists, McCormack’s recorded legacy amounting to around 750 songs.

By some strange coincidence, just a couple of days after I had received this disc for review, I was able to hear a lecture about McCormack, held at The Jussi Björling Museum in Borlänge, Björling’s birth place. The lecturer, among other things, also showed excerpts from a 1929 movie featuring John McCormack. It was fascinating to see his shy stage manners - the little black book which he never looked in but held like a preacher’s bible, the lack of eye contact with the audience. As soon as he started singing he captivated the listeners completely, his plangent voice penetrating the background noise surprisingly well; even his exquisite pianissimos, which of course were his hallmark. The similarities with Björling were obvious: the same silvery sound, the lightness, the musicality, the extraordinary breath-control and the lack of bad manners – no sobs or other extra-musical interpolations. As Harald Henrysson, the curator of the museum said after the lecture: "The only difference between the singers was their choice of cars: while McCormack preferred Rolls Royce, Björling choose a Volvo PV 444."

McCormack started his singing career early and even before he went to Italy to complete his voice training he made his first recordings in 1904 at the age of 20, when he recorded some Edison cylinders. On the present disc, which is volume two of the McCormack edition (not encompassing the early cylinders and not the 1906 – 1909 Odeons), we get, in chronological order, all the HMV and Victor titles recorded between April 8, 1910 and July 18, 1911. As already mentioned quite a lot of the material consists of songs that might be labelled second-rate, but McCormack’s treatment of them refines them in the same way a Billie Holiday or a Frank Sinatra could make gold out of trash. Some songs are also quite endearing, not least McCormack’s "calling card", I hear you calling me, a song he recorded six times. The present version is not the first; he did it with the composer as accompanist in 1908 for Odeon.

And this track is as good a starting point as any for the newcomer. I can’t believe that anyone will not be stunned by his absolutely marvellous piano pianissimo ending, the voice, so to speak, disengaging itself from the body of the singer and hanging in the air as a thin, thin silver thread, absolutely steady. Listen also to the wonderful diminuendos on tracks 13 and 14. Few singers in recorded history have ever attained anything near this perfection of voice control. Liza Lehmann’s Ah! Moon of my delight is also one of the gems, both as a song and as an interpretation, as is Victor Herbert’s I’m falling in love with someone. Parelli’s The happy morning waits should also be mentioned, since with its lively rhythms, accentuated by the castanets, it stands out from the prevailing slow tempos and sorrowful moods.

The opera excerpts are, unfortunately, a mixed blessing. The Rigoletto quartet has McCormack placed very much in the background and he is swamped by the ladies, of whom Nellie Melba constantly sounds like a fog-horn in the Channel. The Faust trio is no better with Melba again hooting her way through the proceedings. Melba and McCormack were obviously not on very friendly terms during this session and Melba was clearly very successful at manipulating the recording staff, with disastrous results. The Pearl Fishers’ duet shows McCormack on good form but, to my ears at least, sounding only mildly interested in what he is singing. He is partnered here by Mario Sammarco, who was regarded as one of the truly great baritones of this era and also held in high esteem by McCormack. But on this showing, and on every other recording by him that I have heard, he sounds like a third-rate provincial singer. The Barber of Seville duet, with McCormack an ideal, vivid and aristocratic Almaviva, offers some of the most unlovable singing of the baritone part ever to be heard, Sammarco barking, coarse, ill-tuned ... I wish there was a way of deleting this Figaro. In the concluding duet from La Gioconda he is better, or rather better suited to a part where he should sound unlovable and evil. The great surprise here is McCormack in a part more suitable to a Caruso voice. It is difficult to know from recordings how big a voice really is, but here McCormack actually has a great deal of power and although retaining the light silvery quality the voice can still sail above the orchestra just as Björling’s did. McCormack actually sang several "heavy" parts, making his stage debut as Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana and even singing Radames’ Celeste Aida in concert.

Ward Marston’s usual good restoration work has not eliminated all the pops and clicks on the original shellacs. This is in the interest of preserving more of McCormack’s unique voice. This disc can be safely recommended to everybody with an interest in masterly singing.
Göran Forsling

Volume 1



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