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John McCormack: A Patrician Artist
Complete Electrical Recordings: 1925-1942
All Extant Broadcasts
Complete Early Recordings 1904 and 1906
rec. 1904-42
MARSTON 51601-2 [16 CDs]

I first got to know the recordings of John McCormack about twenty-five years ago. A friend of mine had a vast collection of vocal 78s. One day he asked if I would like to hear some John McCormack, and rooted out a few of his cherished discs to let me sample. He had a magnificent EMG gramophone. He wound it up, put on the first 78, and carefully placed the bamboo needle into the groove. The recording was 'Off to Philadelphia', and McCormack's voice emerged with burnished splendour. Is there more? I asked. My initial encounter with the voice was followed by 'The Garden Where the Praties Grow', 'Sonny Boy' and, finally, 'The Rose of Tralee'. The latter was a deciding factor: I was hooked. Maybe he should have played me Don Ottavio's aria from Don Giovanni ‘Il mio tesoro’ but, on this occasion, he did not. I only discovered this wonder much later. Recorded in 1916, alas it lies outside the scope of this enterprise.

There is much to savour here. In addition to the tenor’s complete electrical recordings 1925-1942, there are four appendices: two discs of extant radio broadcasts 1926-1942, and two containing early cylinder and disc recordings set down between 1904 and 1906. In 2014, Marston released a 4-CD set John McCormack - A Star Ascending: Odeon Recordings 1906-09 (review).

McCormack is considered by many to be one of the finest lyric tenors of the 20th century. In a 38-year career he made about 600 records. This release preserves them for future generations, in the best possible restorations. The quality of the recordings varies due to the state of the shellac 78s, a material prone to deterioration. Many previous reissues were transferred at the wrong speeds, which can distort the voice. Ward Marston’s expert transfers redress this.

The singer was born in 1884 in Athlone, Ireland, the fourth of eleven children. His father was a labourer. In 1903, McCormack won the coveted gold medal of the Dublin Feis Ceoil. Two years later, with financial backing, he travelled to Italy for a short period of training with Vincenzo Sabatini. His teacher was impressed, declaring "I cannot place your voice, because God did that". In 1906, he married Lily Foley. They had two children, Cyril and Gwen. McCormack’s natural ability, recordings and backing all worked to his advantage. His concerts drew thousands, and he became a wealthy man on the proceeds. Sadly he died in 1945, aged only sixty-one.

One of my favorite tracks is Roger Quilter’s ‘Now sleeps the Crimson petal’. It has all the qualities I love about McCormack’s singing, sweetness and purity of tone and evenness of line. His wide-ranging appeal can be put down to many factors. One is that he was a great communicator, reaching out to his listeners. ‘I'll Walk Beside You’ with Gerald Moore is one such example. There are some rarities. Beethoven’s ‘Christus am Ölberge’ (Christ on the Mount of Olives) is more serious fare, taken from three unpublished sides. The aria ‘Jehovah! Hear Oh Hear Me!" was set down on February 27, 1930, with orchestral accompaniment. It demonstrates McCormack’s strong technique, meticulous attention to detail, mastery of breath control and the ability to tell a story.

The heavily embroidered orchestration and over-romanticised approach to Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Ständchen’, the former with humming chorus in the background, does not appeal to me. I would much prefer them straight, with piano accompaniment. Both are sung in English, and each has an alternative take. I really enjoy the Irish ballads, which showcase his outstanding diction. Apart from the three I mentioned at the start, I would add ‘The Kerry Dance’, ‘Mother Machree’ and ‘Ireland, Mother Ireland’. The latter dates from 1930, the year the singer starred in the film ‘Song o' My Heart’. This song is featured in the film as part of a concert recital with Edwin Schneider, McCormack’s regular accompanist. It is worth watching to see the great man in action. That particular song, the best in the selection, I feel, is (1:00:30) into the film, and can be found on Youtube.

What I find revealing in this collection is witnessing the evolution of the tenor over the years from raw amateur to accomplished artist. ‘The Green Isle of Erin’ is one perfect example; he recorded it in 1904, 1909 and 1936.

The Extant Radio Broadcasts (1926-1942) are a welcome addition, though the sound quality is variable. There is much to admire. A duet with soprano Lucrezia Bori ‘Night Hymn at Sea’ reveals how well the two voices blend and complement each other. They had recorded it in the studio a week earlier (CD 1), but it remained unpublished. From January 1927 there is an exquisitely phrased and fervent ‘On Wings of Song’. The 1933 ‘Panis angelicus’ from New York as part of the Holy Year Inaugural is impassioned and wrought with sincerity. There are two Irish ballads in quite good sound from October 1936 introduced by McCormack himself: ‘The Ould Turf Fire’ and ‘The Star of County Down’. The latter is in even much better sound in April 1938. In another version, two years later (June 1940), McCormack ups the tempo, but the piano does not come over very well in the mix. The exchange between the tenor and Bing Crosby (Hollywood 1937) is of interest, too.

The majority of McCormack’s cylinder recordings were made prior to his formal training in Italy. They are mainly Irish ballads and parlour songs. You can clearly discern an untrained voice, with less than perfect diction and some ungainly slides. Each is preceded by an announcement. The earliest were recorded between September and November 1904. The sound quality of the cylinders varies considerably, and Ward Marston confirms this in his accompanying video. The earliest records by the Victor Talking Machine Company sound in much better shape. There is some intriguing material with a couple of private unpublished recordings featuring the voices of the McCormack children, Cyril and Gwen.

As is the case with all the Marston releases I have acquired over the years, the presentation is second to none. The 16 discs are housed in a durable gloss-finished box. The booklet runs to 162 pages. The lengthy essays by Gordon T. Ledbetter and Michael Aspinall supply a wealth of biographical material and a survey of the artist’s recorded legacy. The collection of black and white photographs fascinated me, three especially: one of McCormack with Vladimir Horowitz, A Farewell Concert to a packed Royal Albert Hall from 1938, with not an empty seat, and a gratifying photo of McCormack with Sir Edward Elgar taken in 1932.

Ward Marston has worked miracles with these irreplaceable recorded documents, and they emerge as fresh and vibrant. His efforts cannot be praised enough. This is a Limited Edition of 1000 sets. No aficionado of the ‘Golden Age of Singing’ will want to be without it.

Stephen Greenbank
For contents list, see Marston website

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