, 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.