CD Reviews: John McCormack

Icon of an Age: The AnthologyZampano ProductionsJohn McCormack gave his farewell performance (a handful of subsequent morale-boosting wartime concerts notwithstanding) to a packed Royal Albert Hall in London 70 years ago this coming November. As musical milestones...

Icon of an Age: The Anthology
Zampano Productions

John McCormack gave his farewell performance (a handful of subsequent morale-boosting wartime concerts notwithstanding) to a packed Royal Albert Hall in London 70 years ago this coming November. As musical milestones go, it must have seemed as seismic an event to contemporary audiences as the Savile Row roof-top leave-taking of the Beatles some three decades later.

One of the finest singers of the twentieth century, McCormack’s pioneering commitment to recording gave him an international presence few others could boast at the time. Indeed, before Elvis, before Sinatra, and, for that matter, before Bono as well, there was McCormack. So the declaration towards the end of the DVD element of this lavishly and lovingly produced tribute that the legendary Athlone-born lyric tenor has been all but forgotten in his native Ireland comes as something of a surprise, if not a shock.

Four CDs, a one-hour-long documentary (written and presented by McCormack authority Gordon Ledbetter) and a 100-page book of previously unpublished letters deliver a mere drop in the ocean given that McCormack made more than 800 recordings during the course of an all-too-short career, but it is, nonetheless, material to plunge into with ready glee.
A word of caution, however. Of the honeypot ‘new’ recordings that the set offers up for eager completists, only four are by McCormack himself and, dating from December 1930, they prove to be something of a disappointment if only because the prospect of something fresh from a voice as richly coloured, fully rounded and often unbearably beautiful as this, raises expectations almost impossibly high.

Nonetheless, there is much to enjoy here. The CDs are themed into opera, art song and lieder (a tellingly wide ranging compendium embracing Donizetti, Schubert, Mozart, Wagner, Richard Strauss and others) and popular ballads and Irish songs, this volume offering a number of essential performances, not least I hear you calling me, Macushla and The Foggy Dew.

A third disc offers useful context. Featuring voices still familiar (Caruso, Chaliapin, Melba, Butt, Tauber) and now forgotten, it offers a vivid snapshot of a generation of phenomenal voices setting the agenda for an emerging industry in the early years of the last century.

Modern ears may well have to adjust to the sizzle and snowfall of surface noise on many of these recordings, but there’s nothing to interfere with one’s enjoyment of what lies beneath. The technology available to McCormack may have been lacking compared to the digital clarity of our own age, but there have been few voices in the 70 years since he stopped singing that have lit up a lyric or illuminated an emotion as he did with an instrument that, for sheer beauty of sound, for impeccable clarity of intonation, for absolute sincerity of feeling, continues to catch the imagination and the heart with a vivid, wholly irresistible compulsion.

Published on 1 March 2008

Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.

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