Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The NRR Project #38: John McCormack sings ‘Il mio tesoro’

Detail from William Orphen's portrait  of McCormack
‘Il mio Tesoro’
From Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Performed by John McCormack; accompanied by Walter Rogers and ensemble
Recorded May 9, 1916
What is the hell is an Irish tenor? From the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th, you couldn’t throw a brick-end without hitting one. They infested churches, bars, social halls, auditoriums, and stood by pianos, organs, and spinets in countless parlors, warbling melodies that charmed the ear and made a tear well up here and there. And John McCormack was the ultimate manifestation of the phenomenon.

An Irish tenor is not necessarily Irish, although it would have behooved him to don a moniker like Reilly or Flanagan before taking the stage. It’s the vocal quality and material covered that makes an Irish tenor. He does not have the strong blare of a Verdiean tenor, nor the all-day toughness of a Wagnerian heldentenor. An Irish tenor is light, lilting, legato – smooth as silk and full of feeling. It’s perfect for sentimental ballads, whether they be about a girl or about Ireland.

John McCormack was a true son of the sod, born in the small town of Athlone in the dead-center of Ireland. His vocal gifts were appreciated, and his community chipped in to send him to Italy for training. He rose swiftly in the opera world, and began to record in 1904. He rapidly became second only to Caruso in terms of recordings sold.

Though McCormack could essay much of the tenor repertoire, he switched his focus to concerts around 1912. There he performed the hits people really loved. He was the first to record “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and he made famous other chestnuts such as “I Hear You Calling Me,” and “The Last Rose of Summer”; his Irish ballads like “The Minstrel Boy,” “Mother Machree,” “The Wearin’ o’ the Green,” and many, many others proved insanely popular with the Irish-American population, which was finally beginning to overcome generations of prejudice.

This recording is a perfect example of his work. It is eminently listenable, flawless, with an extraordinary breath control and sense of articulation. Parlors everywhere had a large stock of McCormack records nearby. Soon crooners and jazz babies would take over the top spot in American musical culture, but McCormack is one of the last remnants of that genteel tradition in American vocal music. He was perfectly lovely.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The Bubble Book. 

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