Remastering the rare works of Irish-born tenor John McCormack

Alan O’Riordan on the quest by a Cork collector to remaster rare works by John McCormack

Remastering the rare works of Irish-born tenor John McCormack

AFTER winning a gold medal in the Feis Ceoil in 1903, funds were raised for the tenor John McCormack to travel to Italy, where he would hone his talents under the tuition of retired opera singer Vincenzo Sabatini.

From there, McCormack went to London, where, in 1906, he made his operatic debut at Covent Garden in Cavalleria rusticana. At 22, he was the youngest lead tenor the theatre had engaged.

Also in 1906, he began a series of recordings for the Odeon Company, which captured his talent at the cusp of its mature greatness. These recordings are overshadowed by the later works now, but, according to Cork collector Jeremy Meehan, they represent a compelling chapter in McCormack’s career.

Thanks to Meehan’s efforts, and a chance encounter on eBay, the Odeon recordings have been remastered and preserved in a CD set to be launched this week.

“I have an eBay habit for this stuff,” says Meehan, a longtime collector of McCormack recordings. “But at least I’m not backing horses. Anyway, I bought some cylinders some time ago and I saw they were being sold by Ward Marston.”

Marston is a renowned restorationist, who has worked with the Naxos label on a comprehensive edition of McCormack’s later works.

“We struck up an exchange,” Meehan continues. “And we saw we both had an ambition to see the Odeons released. He said he’d worked on it 10 years ago and looked for some sponsorship money to support it, but he didn’t even get replies from the companies he asked. So he gave up in despondency really.”

Meehan, who has a background in charity work and fund-raising, decided to give it a shot. He took out subscriptions, sought the support of fan clubs, gramophone societies, and larger donors. Two years later, he had enough money — collected from Ireland, the US, Canada, France, Britain, Austria, the Netherlands and Australia — to fund the recordings.

“They have been issued before, but only patchily,” says Meehan. “And the speeds then were often wrong. They were all made to be played at a flat 78, but back then the speeds could be above or below that. To decide the correct key involves a lot of detective work — looking for clues in scores, the orchestration, all that kind of stuff. Marston has all that knowledge and an acuity of hearing I’d say very few people have: he’s been blind from birth. We are really fortunate to have him on the project, I don’t think this will ever be done to this standard again.”

For Meehan the peculiar attraction of the 1906-1909 period is the sense of an artist’s emergence that comes through. “You can track the progress here: the broadening repertoire, the mastery beginning to emerge, the expressive ability, the control, the ability to communicate — by the end of that period you can see he is on the cusp of that great period from January 1910, with the first Victor recordings in America.”

Listeners will be familiar with the repertoire of the Odeon recordings, which includes ‘The Croppy Boy’, ‘Come Back to Erin’, some Thomas Moore, and popular operatic arias. But there is a further familiarity in McCormack for the modern ear. “Even though these recordings were made over 100 years ago,” says Meehan. “You can still hear that he’s a very modern singer. He didn’t have the mannerisms that would have been typical of the 19th-century style. If you heard him perform today it wouldn’t seem odd.”

Nonetheless, says Meehan, you do “have to listen with a different ear”. He notes that the most recent of the recordings are from 105 years ago, “so you won’t get lush stereo”. And, he says, Marston’s philosophy is to interfere as little as possible with the originals. “It’s cleaned up, of course, and in the process you can go from disc to disc to cut out pops and cracks, but others do all sorts of things to reduce the crackle, but we didn’t want to gild the lily, that always gives something that sounds false.”

In fact, Marston and the CDs’ producer, Scott Kessler, worked on more than 300 discs to achieve optimum results for the collection. That said, some of the records are extremely rare, sometimes with just a single extant copy — now, those are preserved for posterity.

For the listener, perhaps one of the great surprises with this material is the sense of immediacy it has, all these years later. The early acoustic recording methods meant singers had to take a very direct style (it was only later that electrical amplification allowed them to croon and experiment in ways that would have been inaudible for acoustic recording). And, of course, what we hear is not a vocal track laid on top of the music, but one take, one live piece of singing, captured for posterity.

* The Odeon Edition includes a 70-page booklet of essays and photographs. The set is available at a reduced price of €49.95 (rrp €75) for a limited period. Contact jmeehan@indigo.ie.

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