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Classic FM, January 2005

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Robert J Farr
MusicWeb International, December 2004

"John McCormack (1884-1945) won the gold medal in a Dublin music festival in 1903. The win changed his career and life’s direction. Local support enabled him to study in Milan, his only sustained period of vocal training. In 1906 he was deemed ready for his operatic debut. This was in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz in Savonna, a small town in the gulf of Genoa. The following year he debuted at Covent Garden in the much heavier role of Turridu in Cavalleria Rusticana. This was quickly followed by more appropriate tenor leads in La Sonnambula, Rigoletto, Lakmé and Lucia. McCormack’s attempts to build a career in Italy were less successful and he had to admit that he didn’t have the weight of voice that Italian audiences liked. America was more discerning and his Met debut in November was as Alfredo to Tetrazzini’s Violetta. This was at the diva’s specific request having sung Lucia and Lakmé with him at Covent Garden.

New York with its immigrant Irish population was ideal for McCormack as a singer of ballad song. He maintained the dual life of opera singer and recitalist only until 1913. He recognised his limitations as an actor and that he lacked the strength of voice for a long stage career. Despite this relatively brief period on the operatic stage he had a repertoire of 21 roles. On this CD his elegant phrasing, breath control and limpid tone are heard to good effect in Una furtiva lagrima (tr. 7) and the Delibes (tr. 10) where his pianissimo and diminuendo are great strengths. The singer’s limitations in terms of vocal strength can be heard in the ever-popular Che gelida manina from La Boheme (tr. 6), expressive though his singing is. Nor is he a match for Gigli in Tu che a Dio from Lucia (tr. 2) as can be heard on Volume 5 of the Naxos Gigli series .

The great strengths that made McCormack revered on the concert platform and as a recording artist were his clear diction and ability to speak to the heart as well as the ears of the listener. Typical is his aria from Faust (tr. 12) which transcends the translation to Italian, albeit the high note is squeezed somewhat. It was McCormack’s ability to communicate with the listener that laid the foundations of a recital career that lasted until 1938. His signature song I Hear You Calling Me is very typical of his range of expression and ability to float a phrase on the breath.

Always aware of his American buying public McCormack was liberal in his recording of Irish tunes. In his extended and informed sleeve note, John Scarry tells how Fred Gaisberg, at Victor’s affiliate HMV, refused to join the American company in buying out McCormack’s Odeon label contract. The singer carried a grudge against Gaisberg on that account and would insult him at every opportunity. Meanwhile HMV had ample opportunity to regret this error of judgement as McCormack went on to become a best selling artist. One year he even outsold Caruso no less.

Restoration engineer Ward Marston has worked wonders in bringing out the tone and clarity of McCormack’s voice. There is the odd example of thin string tone in the accompanying orchestra but the overall result is even better than Marston achieved for the Caruso series for Naxos. Those who know McCormack and his singing will welcome and enjoy these transfers that transcend the earlier Romophone issues. For those who do not know the voice, I strongly recommend the modest outlay and enjoy what many have long known and can now glory in anew."

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