Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

John Steane
Gramophone, January 2008

PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 4 (1923-1929) 8.111141
MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edition, Vol. 5: The Acoustic Recordings (1914-1915) 8.111315

The Ponselle disc…contains treasures, as does the latest John McCormack recital. This covers the years 1914 and ’15, and has the Traviata duet with the exquisite Lucrezia Bori. …Ben Bolt is probably best: a bit of honest sentimentality and as McCormack himself might have said “damn fine singing”. © 2008 Gramophone Read complete review on Gramophone

Raymond J Walker
MusicWeb International, November 2007

John McCormack (1884-1945) is a singer well known for his light velvety tenor voice. He was born in Ireland and at the age of 18 was sent to Dublin. There he was ‘discovered’ by the choirmaster of a Dublin cathedral choir he had joined. He was encouraged to prepare and enter an Irish singing contest a year later and won its prestigious Gold award. This brought a new confidence and he went to Italy for vocal studies in Milan. The next year he appeared in Mascagni and Gounod operas with average success but an audition for La Scala was unsuccessful because his voice was not considered robust enough for the weight of Italian opera. He created a sensation at a Boosey Ballad Concert in London (1907), an appearance so successful that Walter Legge of HMV fame always believed this recital, rather than his later Covent Garden début, opened the door to a career in England.

From what we hear, McCormack was a strong lyrical tenor with a clean edge to the voice. He is comfortable with the Verdi and Puccini arias heard here but lacks the power of a Pavarotti. With ballad singing he seems much more at home. A particular quality is the way he can hold on to a final note and let it gently die without any touch of aural instability. Such quality of breath control is amazing.

Although he appeared in America and Europe in opera, his focus was on recitals and recordings. For this, his repertoire was wide and covered everything from operatic arias to parlour ballads. The selection on this fifth volume covers a number of operatic numbers of Verdi, Schubert and Mascagni as well as some sheet music favourites like Benedict’s The Moon hath lit her lamp, Balfe’s When other lips, D’Hardelot’s Because, Lehmann’s Bonnie Wee Thing, and Sanderson’s Until. The Irish are well represented in the Romance of Athlone (McCormack’s home area), the Lily of Killarney, and It’s a long way to Tipperary.

In Ava Maria, the piano anticipates the voice nicely, but Kreisler’s violin accompaniment tends to flag. McCormack’s diction in Lohr’s The Little Grey Home is exemplary with consonants clear yet without exaggeration. Tracks 3 to 21 come from the same recording sessions (6-9 April 1914), averaging six songs per day. The musician/singer arrangement is noticeably altered after the second day as the orchestra is further recessed. The Aida track, O terra addio is perhaps the least successful. In Benedict’s The Moon hath raised her lamp, McCormack shines out admirably in the duet.

There seems some anomaly in the recording of romantic arias and sweet-sounding, melodious songs at a time when the earthy ravages of the First World War had just begun. These are however American Victor recordings, far removed from the theatre of war. McCormack had settled down in America and to the dismay of Britain had taken American citizenship. During this period, the recording studio was still hampered be the need for delicate positioning of singer and orchestral elements around the bell of a large acoustical ‘trumpet’. Yet it still managed to achieve an excellent balance between orchestra and singer. The characteristic reediness and bias to top frequencies is very evident. I just wonder whether less treble on equalisation might have improved the transfers.

Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, November 2007

Next to Caruso John McCormack was for a number of years the best-selling recording artist. During WW1 he even surpassed the Neapolitan tenor for a period. In many ways the two singers were each other’s opposites: Caruso came from Italy, McCormack from Ireland. Both reaped their fruits mainly in the US. Caruso was, from the outset, a lirico-spinto whose voice grew darker and more dramatic during his last decade. McCormack was a lyrical tenor and remained in this Fach. Caruso was first and foremost an opera singer, the leading tenor at the Metropolitan for most of his life. McCormack appeared for some limited time on the stage but most of his career he was a concert singer, mainly of popular songs and sentimental ballads, a field that allowed him to become the highest paid singer of his time. That both singers had superb voices and musicianship goes without saying but I don’t think that it is irrelevant to say that John McCormack’s voice was the most beautiful.

McCormack did record some opera – on this disc we have four distinguished examples of his art in that field. On previous and forthcoming volumes there is more to savour, not least his Mozart singing, where few tenors have been more stylish. It is however the lighter fare that dominates his recorded output, Many of the songs can hardly be regarded as masterpieces. But his innate musicality and the beauty of his voice do much to ennoble even the slightest ditties and make them sound better than they are; it would be a mistake to turn up one’s nose at this singer on that ground.

Schubert’s Ständchen from Schwanengesang is an established masterwork and few have sung it more beautifully, more naturally. He pours out golden tone and phrases so musically – no detailed pointing of words but his diction is so clear that the message comes over regardless. Ave Maria is an adaptation of the famous orchestral Intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana and the final pianissimo is a marvel. In both these songs Fritz Kreisler assists with meltingly beautiful playing.

McCormack’s soft singing is admirable throughout. Normally he never goes beyond the limitations of his voice, even though in Because (tr. 9) the final note is slightly strained. Mary of Argyle is one of the very best songs here, sung with conviction, diction exemplary as always and the rolling Rs so distinct.

The light operas of the Victorian era are rarely heard today, which is a pity, since there is a lot to admire there. It is good to be reminded of this music in two excerpts here. When other lips and other hearts from Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl was also included in a recital disc with Jerry Hadley some years ago. He sang it with elegance and lightness almost in the McCormack class but the older mastersinger has even more melting tone. In the duet from Benedict’s The Lily of Killarney McCormack is sympathetically partnered by Reinald Werrenrath’s warm and noble baritone.

There is a grim reminder of the Great War that started during the period when these sides were recorded. It’s a long way to Tipperary became, as John Scarry puts it in his informative notes, ‘one of the classic anthems of World War I’. This recording was made just months after hostilities began, which explains the martial drums in the refrain. In this number, as well as in the beautifully sung Stephen Foster song and Denza’s Funiculì funicula, he is backed by a male ‘chorus’. Denza’s lively song, written to commemorate the first funicular railway at Mount Vesuvius in 1880, is a welcome contrast to the predominantly slow and sentimental songs that constitute the core of this disc.

For those who feel the sugar-content too high to be healthy, the four operatic numbers are still possible to digest without contracting diabetes. John McCormack abandoned the operatic stage since he regarded himself as a lousy actor. This may be true but he definitely had the measure of many of the great operatic roles. As the Count of Mantua in Rigoletto he is ideal and considering the age of the recording the four voices are surprisingly well separated. In the Traviata duet he is a warm Alfredo with his favourite soprano Lucrezia Bori a frail Violetta. They also sing together in the Bohème duet, a perfectly matched couple and McCormack takes the lower option at the end of the duet, according to Puccini’s wishes. The role of Radamès in Aida would never have been within his reach in the theatre but in the studio the final duet is well executed. His Aida, Lucy Isabelle Marsh, also a lyrical voice, makes a fine impression.

The recorded sound is good and Ward Marston has retained some of the surface noise to ensure that the singers are not robbed of important overtones, making their voices dull.

Complete editions are mainly directed towards inveterate collectors. More general listeners, who are not too keen on an overdose of sentimental songs, are perhaps better advised to seek out a disc with “The Best of John McCormack”. On the other hand, to get an all-embracing portrait of the singer and perhaps better understand the magic that endeared him to the masses, a disc of this kind is valuable – and there is no need to listen to it in one sitting.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

Born in Ireland in 1884, John McCormack became one of the most popular recording artists of his time. Originally self-taught he spent time being trained in Italy where he started his career in provincial opera houses. Returning to the UK he was taken into London’s Covent Garden opera house where he gained a considerable reputation as a lyric tenor. He was later to become an equal success in North America and particularly at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He could not, however, shake off that particular Irish tang to his voice, and by his own admission he was a dreadful actor. The two combined to persuade him to draw his opera career to an early conclusion while still in his mid-thirties. From therein he worked in the concert hall, happy with the success that singing ballades brought him, particular in the profusion of discs he made. The present CD covers the period from 1914 - 15 when he was ready to leave the opera house, yet shows that he was still vocally at the height of his career. It is surprising that one who had been blessed with such a voice could descend to these musical trifles, the banal words to Olcott’s My Wild Irish Rose just about ending my interest in the disc, only to find Puccini and Verdi arias which point to the loss his early ‘retirement’ brought about. The Traviata duet with Lucrezia Bori followed by their tender Boheme would almost persuade me to buy the disc. An orchestra plugs away in the backdrop with the basic accompaniment necessary, and there are cameo appearances of Fritz Kreisler in the first two tracks. Ward Marston’s transfers are as good as we have grown to expect.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group