MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edtion, Vol. 3:The Acoustic Recordings

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John McCormack (1884-1945)

The McCormack Edition, Vol. 3

 "I have always thought", Max de Schauensee wrote, "thatwhat Caruso was to grand opera, McCormack was to the concert platform". Itis an accurate judgment. Caruso and McCormack were the tenors who dominated theopera house and the recital hall respectively in the opening decades of thelast century. Although John McCormack established an opera career for which hewas originally trained, he soon began to enjoy his greatest recognition on theconcert platform. The years just before World War I saw him firmly establishedin England; those same years also witnessed his first seasons in the United States. As his appearances in opera diminished, his work as a recitalist increasedto the point where his reputation (and fortune) made him the most popularsinger ever heard in recital. He is, in musical history, a phenomenon without precedent.

John McCormack was born in the small Irish town of Athlone on 14 June 1884. By 1903 he was in Dublin, studying half-heartedly for a post inthe civil service, but when he won first prize in an important music festivalthat same year, he found himself on the road to a singing career. Generouslocal support enabled him to travel to Milan in 1905 where he studied withVincenzo Sabatini (whose son wrote Scaramouche and other romance novels).

The maestro's work soon made the fledgling tenor ready for his operatic debut,which took place at Savona's Teatro Chiabrera on 13 January 1906. When, as thehero of Mascagni's L'amico Fritz, the young Irishman had to look twicehis age, it was perhaps an omen of the discomfort McCormack would always feel onthe operatic stage.

After this quiet Italian debut and some unsuccessful auditionsat La Scala, the young singer set his sights on London. Thanks to theinfluential Sir John Murray Scott, McCormack made his Covent Garden debut, in CavalleriaRusticana on 15 October 1907; at 23, he was the youngest principal tenorever engaged by that opera house, but recordings made at the time clearly showthat friends in high places had counted more than sheer musical merit.

McCormack himself was under no illusions about his need for further study; hisunceasing hard work over the next two years, along with his shrewd observationsof other singers at Covent Garden, resulted in an artistic leap which has noparallel in the history of recording. In less than three years, the McCormack instrumentwas fully mature; his first Victor records, made just after his 1909 New York debut in La traviata, show a completely finished artist. (Naxos 8.110329fully documents the first years of the tenor's American career.)In addition to his beautifully produced voice and his superbtechnique, McCormack had an important advantage over most other Europeansingers who came to the United States. This was the enormous population of Irishimmigrants who were only too ready and willing to welcome this ambassador ofsong from their native culture. Their deep emotional ties to their Ireland of memories and dreams were the chords this minstrel would play upon, as no otherartist ever could.

Welcomed in the concert hall by adoring audiences whoclamoured for (and got) double the number of selections announced on the singer'sprogrammes, and faced in the opera house with direct competition from tenors ofthe Caruso variety, McCormack soon realised the direction his career must take.

The wisdom of that decision is confirmed by statistics that continue to impress.

For example, what singer of the present day could fill New York's Carnegie Hallfive times in a single season? By 1918 a national music magazine could pronounceMcCormack "the most popular singer in the world", and in one year ofthat same decade the Irish tenor even surpassed Caruso's legendary annualrecord sales. "Please, Giovanni", the great Neapolitan warned with a twinklein his eye, the next time they met, "not to let it happen again". Itdid not, but the Irish tenor had reached a high-water mark in his success.

McCormack spent the war years in the United States, and as that conflict was coming to an end the singer and his wife decided to makeofficial what had by then become a reality: they became American citizens. Itwas a move that caused the singer a great deal of difficulty. People in theBritish Isles, and throughout the Empire, saw him as a traitor; he was sounpopular in England that it was not until 1924 that he dared give a concert in London. The post-war years included memorable recitals in Paris, Berlin, and Prague, and in the early 1920s the tenor made his final appearances in opera.

These performances took place in Monte Carlo, his singing of the part ofGritzko in the newly edited La foire de Sorotchintzi of Mussorgsky in1923 being the most memorable production.

Three years later the singer made an extended concert tourof the Orient, and in 1929 he starred in the Hollywood film Song o' My Heart.

Playing opposite him was the young Maureen O'Sullivan, then at the beginning ofher career. After several more seasons touring the United States and England, the tenor bade farewell to his public at London's Albert Hall in November 1938. He wouldcontinue to make records until 1942, and he made several fund-raising tours andBBC broadcasts in support of the war effort. McCormack retired to Ireland, where he died at his home just outside of Dublin, on 16 September 1945.

This volume of recordings continues to document the earliestyears of McCormack's success in the United States, the titles indicating hisgreatly increased concert work. In 1910-1911, the singer had recorded somesixteen operatic and other selections in Italian, and 23 different selectionsin English; the present CD, covering all of 1912 and the first month of 1913,contains six operatic arias and nineteen songs and ballads.

Our first operatic item documents an eagerly awaited momentin American music. This was the premi?â?¿re of Victor Herbert's much vaunted operaNatoma, first given in Philadelphia on 25 February 1911. Herbert was oneof the composers who had responded to Antonin Dvořak's earlier call for anAmerican opera; in Herbert's case the results were disastrous. As FrancisRobinson has observed, Natoma "set back the cause of opera inEnglish almost beyond reparation". He also notes how ironic it was thatMcCormack's English, "so flawless and so beautiful, should have been putto such misuse". As unfortunate as the opera was, with its mediocre musicand ludicrous text, we are grateful to have McCormack's clarion interpretationof Paul's aria, conducted here by Herbert himself, and recorded little morethan a year after that forgettable production. The recording is noteworthy asthe only creator record McCormack made from his career in opera.

Other operatic titles have more successful associations. Forexample, Covent Garden's 1914 season featured a revival of Boito's Mefistofele,with McCormack in the r?â??le of Faust and Claudia Muzio as his Margherita. Bothof the present recordings from the opera, made two years before thatproduction, reveal this tenor at his operatic best. His 'Giunto sul passo estremo' is a marvel of caressing legato andbeautiful tone, and we have Lily McCormack's own memory of the young tenor singing'Dai campi, dai prati' during his student days in Italy; she thought the ariacould well have been written for his voice. It is a judgement that could standfor both of these lovely souvenirs of McCormack's final Covent Garden season.

Three additional operas represented here are outside theMcCormack repertoire, but they give us some fine examples of his singing. Thefirst is Bizet's Les p?â
Disc: 1
Where the river Shannon flows
1 Marie, my girl
2 Like stars above
3 Take, o take those lips away
4 I have a garden (A Child's Song)
5 Asthore
6 A Farewell
7 Natoma: My commander as envoy bids me come
8 I know of two bright eyes
9 Eileen Aroon (arr. D. MacMurrough)
10 The Wearing of the Green (arr. James)
11 The Rosary
12 The harp that once through Tara's halls
13 Silver threads among the gold
14 I Gioielli della Madonna: T’eri un giorno ammalato
15 At Dawning, Op. 29, No. 1
16 Act I: Dai campi, dai prati
17 Act IV: Giunto sul passo
18 Les pecheurs de perles, Act III: Mi par d’udir anc
19 Nirvana
20 Maritana, Act II: There is a flower that bloometh
21 My dreams
22 Sweet Genevieve
23 I'll sing thee songs of Araby
24 Where the river Shannon flows
25 Silver threads among the gold
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