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John McCormack - A Star Ascending: Odeon Recordings 1906-09
John McCormack (tenor)
With orchestral and piano accompaniment
rec. 1906-09, London
Full track-listing below
Notes but no texts
MARSTON 54005-2 [4 CDs: 71:00 + 77:17 + 71:55 + 61:00]

How valuable it is to be led, session by session, year by year, through a famous musician’s discography. Unless one is taking a strictly chronological view this is seldom possible, especially with an artist whose discography is vast, as McCormack’s is.

When one focuses on a particular area of that discography, as here, one can drill down to the minutiae of an artist’s early years, to chart his progress from talented but as yet unfinished tenor, to a period in which he stands at the very edge of greatness. That, by and large, is what we have with this 4-CD set.

It pursues McCormack’s nineteen-session three-year recordings for Odeon in London. The background to this is fascinating and detailed in exemplary, extensive fashion in the 66-page booklet, which I commend for its excellence, not least with regard to the illustrations. I confess that whilst I salute the depth and erudition displayed in the ‘Notes on the Song Texts’ some of it is very specialist stuff indeed – and I’m not sure how much the textual meaning will really resonate. Still, it’s better to know than not know. The transfers, needless to say, are as good as one might have anticipated.

Included in this box is a large number of Irish ballads, a number reprised at later sessions, popular songs (similarly many were re-recorded), operatic arias, and there are also nine cylinder recordings made for the Edison Bell and Russell Hunting companies. There is an appendix in the last disc which consists of eight alternative takes, almost all of them of operatic arias, with uncertain recordings dates.

McCormack had first recorded in 1904; he also made 1906 cylinders before this long Odeon sequence. The earliest 1904 recordings pre-date his training with Vincenzo Sabatini in Milan. Additionally these Odeon discs have often been dismissed as a kind of pre-McCormack McCormack - that is to say that it represents a chrysalis state of artistic development. At least the totality of recordings can now be listened to and his early liaison with this company put into far better perspective than has ever been possible before.

There’s little question that the mature artist’s later sides are from an artistic point of view significantly more valuable than these early sides. Yet there are embryonic signs in, say, The Green Isle of Erin – the September 1906 version, as there are several scattered throughout the set – that the affecting warmth and plangency of his voice was already deployed to good effect. That keen, quivering eagerness, supported by fine diction, seldom deserted him. Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen is a famous interpretation though this 1907 version shows only flickers of the pathos he was later to draw from it. He’s not helped by the serio-comic effects of the brass and wind ensemble, which adds a bizarre seaside pier show verismo to things. There are two takes of the song that ‘made’ McCormack – Liddle’s A Farewell and they are of significance; we can hear just what it was that made him so attractive to audiences in September 1907. The first operatic pieces followed at the following session – Cav and Pag extracts, in English and transposed, though La donna è mobile is sung in Italian.

The second disc alternates between the repertory over a series of sessions; there isn’t much focus on a determined selection of items, more a scatter-shot approach taking in a wide variety of items. The religiose mixes with Tosca; and a Traditional series with more revealing operatic arias from Rigoletto, La Bohème (adequate but with sickly accompaniment), Carmen and Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl. Questa o quella has a deal of chuffing but it was unpublished on 78, so its presence is valuable. He seems to have liked Pinsuti at this time and sings his music well. There’s an early outing for the music of Wallace via There is a flower that bloometh from Maritana. It’s only in the October 1908 session that we finally get piano accompaniment, jangly though it is. Odeon however liked to hedge its bets. One version of I Hear You Calling Me has piano, whilst the other has band accompaniment.

Sessions 13 to 19 saw a diminution in operatic arias. Ballads predominate and he revisits earlier recordings, re-recording items made only a couple of years before. When he does venture a Tosti song he is pursued by some slithery strings but he sings Landon Ronald and W.H. Squire’s period offerings with good style. One of the best performances comes in the last disc, The Bay of Biscay from Davy’s Spanish Dollars. Forgotten it may be but McCormack sings it with quasi-operatic jubilation. The appendix of undated alternative takes is a necessary component of this set and all collectors will be pleased that they are here. The Edison Bell 1906 cylinder of Home to Athlone, one of his staples, is a trial to listen to but the Russell Hunting Company Sterling three-minute cylinders are a different matter and a pleasure - there are eight of them.

I’m delighted to have been able to listen to this voluminous, scholarly box. It’s a set to be reserved for moments of ‘compare and contrast’ I think, when opportunities present, and to gauge the young McCormack against his later, more finished self. For all admirers of the great Irish tenor, it offers a chronology and artistic lineage of lasting value.

Jonathan Woolf

Full track-listing

CD 1 (71:00)

Session 1
September 1906
1. A Nation Once Again (Traditional) 3:03
(Lx 1565-1) 44364
2. God Save Ireland (Root) 2:59
(Lx 1566-1) 44363
3. The Boys of Wexford (Darley) 3:11
(Lx 1567-1) 44366
4. The Croppy Boy (Traditional) 2:56
(Lx 1568-1) 44367
5. The Dear Little Shamrock (Cherry) 2:58
(Lx 1569-1) 44368
6. The Snowy Breasted Pearl (Traditional) 3:04
(Lx 1570-1) 44369

Session 2
September 1906
7. The Green Isle of Erin (Roeckel) 3:05
(Lx 1576-1) 44374
8. Kathleen Mavourneen (Crouch) 3:12
(Lx 1577-1) 44375
9. Come Back to Erin (Claribel) 2:58
(Lx 1579-1) 44376
10. Come Back to Erin (Claribel) 2:03
(L 1580-1) 2895
11. The Dear Little Shamrock (Cherry) 2:04
(L 1581-1) 2896
12. Killarney (Balfe) 3:13
(Lx 1582-1) 44377

Session 3
February or March 1907
13. My Dark Rosaleen (Needham-Morgan) 2:58
(Lx 2132-1) 44889
14. Savourneen Deelish (Traditional) 3:06
(Lx 2133-1) 44852
15. Terence’s Farewell to Kathleen (Traditional) 2:36
(Lx 2134-1) 44853
16. Oft in the Stilly Night (Traditional) 3:20
(Lx 2135-1) 44854

Session 4
September 1907
17. Absent (Metcalf ) 2:09
(Lx 2430-1) 57511
18. A Farewell (Liddle) 2:39
(Lx 2431-1) 57548
19. A Farewell (Liddle) 2:39
(Lx 2431-2) 57548
20. Love’s Golden Treasury (Capel) 3:18
(Lx 2432-1) 57549

Session 5
September 1907
21. Like Stars Above (Squire) 3:30
(Lx 2487-1) 57507
22. CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA: O Lola ch’ai di latti [Siciliana] (O Lola, pretty one, white as the May, love) (Mascagni) 1:58
(Lx 2488-1) 57523 transposed down a semitone to E Minor
23. PAGLIACCI: Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio ... Vesti la giubba (To act! With my heart bowed down with sorrow ... On with the motley) (Leoncavallo) 2:27
(Lx 2489-1) 57524 transposed down a semitone to E-flat Minor
24. The Awakening of a Perfect Spring (Simpson) 3:35
(Lx 2490-1) 57504
25. RIGOLETTO: La donna è mobile (Verdi) 2:00
(Lx 2491-1) 57508 transposed down a semitone to B-flat

CD 2 (77:17)

Session 6
September 1907
1. Thora (Adams) 3:12
(Lx 2500-1) 66190
2. TOSCA: E lucevan le stelle (Puccini) 2:30
(Lx 2501-1) 57525
3. A Child’s Song (Marshall) 2:41
(Lx 2502-1) 57503

Session 7
November 1907
4. I Sent My Love Two Roses (Simpson) 2:37
(Lx 2545-1) 57506

Session 8
November 1907
5. The Lord is My Light (Allitsen) 3:31
(Lx 2558-1) 57505
6. RIGOLETTO: Questa o quella (Verdi) 2:02
(Lx 2559-1) unpublished on 78 rpm

Session 9
November 1907
7. THE BOHEMIAN GIRL: When other lips (Then you’ll remember me) (Balfe) 3:08
(Lx 2619-1) 57522

Session 10
August or September 1908
8. LA BOHÈME: Che gelida manina (Puccini) 4:30
(Lxx 2791-1) 84205
9. Mattinata (Leoncavallo) 2:06
(Lx 2793-1) unpublished on 78 rpm
10. CARMEN: La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (See here the flower) (Bizet) 3:48
(Lx 2795-1) 57582
11. I’ll Sing Thee Songs of Araby (Clay) 3:17
(Lx 2796-2) 57583
12. MIGNON: Elle ne croyait pas (In her simplicity) (Thomas) 4:30
(Lx 2797-1) 57581
13. Roses (Adams) 3:16
(Lx 2798-1) 57580
14. Pianto del Core (Pinsuti) 4:56
(Lxx 2799-1) 84206

Session 11
October 1908
15. Has Sorrow Thy Young Days Shaded (Traditional) 3:31
(Lx 2840-1) 57587
16. Avenging and Bright (Traditional) 3:00
(Lx 2841-1) 57590
17. The Foggy Dew (Traditional) 3:06
(Lx 2842-1) 57593
18. Trottin’ to the Fair (Traditional) 1:31
(Lx 2843-1) 57594
19. MARITANA: There is a flower that bloometh (Wallace) 2:59
(Lx 2844-1) 57588
20. SONGS OF THE TURKISH HILLS: I Know of Two Bright Eyes (Clutsam) 2:49
(Lx 2845-1) 57591

Session 12
October 1908
21. Mary of Allendale (Hook) 3:06
(Lx 2850-1) 57602
22. I Hear You Calling Me (Marshall) 3:48
(Lxx 2852-1) 84207
23. When Shadows Gather (Marshall) 3:20
(Lxx 2853-1) 84210
24. I Hear You Calling Me (Marshall) 4:03
(Lxx 2854-1) 84208

CD 3 (71:55)

Session 13
November or December 1908
1. Lolita (Serenata Espagnol) (Buzzi-Peccia) 3:18
(Lxx 2962-1) 84217
2. Parted (Scott) 3:12
(Lx 2963-1) 57608
3. The Philosophy of Love (Larchet) 2:36
Lx 2965-1) 57704

Session 14
August 1909
4. A Southern Song (Batten) 4:11
(Lxx 3134-2) 84233
5. Mountain Lovers (Squire) 4:07
(Lxx 3135-1) 84226
6. When Shadows Gather (Squire) 3:43
(Lx 3136-2) 57632
7. Take, Oh Take Those Lips Away (Bennett) 3:00
(Lx 3137-1) 57630
8. CARMEN: La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (Il fior che avevi a me) (Bizet) 3:53
(Lxx 3138-1) 84225; X 75

Session 15
September 1909, with orchestra
9. Lolita (Serenata Espagnol) (Buzzi-Peccia) 3:16
(Lx 3150-2) 57640
10. My Dark Rosaleen (Needham-Morgan) 3:50
(Lxx 3151-2) 84240
11. LA FAVORITA: Spirto gentil (Donizetti) 3:37
(Lxx 3152-2) 84230 transposed down a semitone to B
12. Voi Dormite, Signora! (Tosti) 3:29
(Lxx 3153-2) 57643

Session 16
September 1909
13. The Fairy Glen (Marshall) 3:20
(Lx 3155-1) 57644
14. Eileen Aroon (Traditional) 3:20
(Lx 3156-1) 57641
15. Ideale (Tosti) 3:36
(Lx 3157-1) 57642
16. O Lovely Night (Ronald) 4:03
(Lxx 3158-1) 84229

Session 17
September 1909
17. The Green Isle of Erin (Roeckel) 4:06
(Lxx 3160-1) 84234
18. L’Ultima Canzone (Tosti) 2:48
(Lx 3162-1) 57645 transposed down a semi-tone to B
19. My Queen (Blumenthal) 4:15
(Lxx 3163-1) 84231
20. The Last Watch (Pinsuti) 4:15
(Lxx 3164-1) 8

CD 4 (61:00)

Session 18
September 1909
1. Oft in the Stilly Night (Traditional) 2:31
(Lx 3166-1) 57646
2. The Ould Plaid Shawl (Traditional) 2:45
(Lx 3167-1) 57647
3. SPANISH DOLLARS: The Bay of Biscay (Davy) 2:15
(Lx 3168-1) 57648
4. Goodbye, Sweetheart, Goodbye (Hatton) 3:21
(Lx 3169-1) 57705

Session 19
September 1909
5. AIDA: Celeste Aida (Verdi) 3:40
(Lxx 3173-1) 84236

Appendix 1:
Alternative takes: Recording dates uncertain
6. Savourneen Deelish (Traditional) 3:19
(Lx 2133-2) 57550
7. Love’s Golden Treasury (Capel) 3:15
(Lx 2432-2) 57549
8. RIGOLETTO: La donna è mobile (Verdi) 2:42
(Lx 2491-3) unpublished on 78 rpm
9. RIGOLETTO: La donna è mobile (Verdi) 2:43
(Lx 2491-4) 57508
10. TOSCA: E lucevan le stelle (Puccini) 2:51
(Lx 2501-2) 57525, see note on page 65
11. RIGOLETTO: Questa o quella (Verdi) 2:13
(Lx 2559-3) 57631
12. LA BOHÈME: Che gelida manina (Puccini) 4:23
(Lxx 2791-2) 84205
13. Mattinata (Leoncavallo) 2:02
(Lx 2793-2) 57633

Appendix 2:
Cylinder recordings, 1906
Edison Bell Consolidated Phonograph Company
14. Home to Athlone (Greene) 2:29
Edison Bell two-minute cylinder 10085C
Russell Hunting Company
15. God Save Ireland (Root) 2:39
Sterling three-minute cylinder 612
16. The Boys of Wexford (Darley) 2:38
Sterling three-minute cylinder 613
17. A Nation Once Again (Davis) 2:41
Sterling three-minute cylinder 614
18. The Croppy Boy (Traditional) 2:31
Sterling three-minute cylinder 615
19. Come Back to Erin (Claribel) 2:33
Sterling three-minute cylinder 682
20. The Dear Little Shamrock (Cherry) 2:36
Sterling three-minute cylinder 683
21. Come Back to Erin (Claribel) 2:26
Alternative take of Sterling three-minute cylinder 682 transferred to Pathé disc 77686
22. The Dear Little Shamrock (Cherry) 2:28
Alternative take of Sterling three-minute cylinder 683 transferred to Pathé disc 77687

CD 1:Accompaniment: All tracks with orchestral accompaniment: Tracks [1-24] sung in English; Track [25] sung in Italian Recording location: All tracks recorded at 14 Hamsell Street, London

CD 2:Accompaniment: Tracks [1-21, 24] with orchestral accompaniment; Tracks [22-23] accompanied by Charles Marshall, piano: Tracks [1, 3-5, 7, 10-13, 15-24] sung in English; Tracks [2, 6, 8-9, 14] sung in Italian Recording location: All tracks recorded at 14 Hamsell Street, London

CD 3:Accompaniment: Tracks [1-3] with piano accompaniment; Tracks [4-20] with orchestral accompaniment: Tracks [1, 8-9, 11-12, 18] sung in Italian; Tracks [2-7, 10, 13-17, 19-20] sung in English Recording location: All tracks recorded at 14 Hamsell Street, London

CD 4:Accompaniment: All tracks with orchestral accompaniment: Tracks [1-4, 6-7, 14-22] sung in English; Tracks [5, 8-13] sung in Italian Recording location: Tracks 1-13 recorded at 14 Hamsell Street, London; Track 14 recorded at 39 Charing Cross Road, London; Tracks 15-22 recorded at 81 City Road, London