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State of grace

Ward Marston recently released a four-CD deluxe package of John McCormack’s lesser known Odeon recordings. These are not to be confused with his later, more well-known, and vocally revered discs he made on the Victor label. Recorded more than a century later, Lawrence Brownlee’s new album Virtuoso Rossini Arias demonstrate just how far the tenore di grazia has  come in the operatic world. The two albums are really useful bookends for each other.  

Despite being made quite early in the history of the recording process (from 1906-1909), McCormack’s Odeon discs are instantly recognizable for the timbre of the voice and for his crystal clear English diction. What’s also clear is that, essentially, he has the same type of voice as Brownlee—sweet, light, less remarkable for size and squillo than for, well, grace. One major difference between the McCormack and Brownlee era is the emphasis on high notes that exists today. McCormack might be called a high-C-less tenor. The package does contain recordings of “Che gelida manina” sung in key, but the high C is not really there, or at least not a comfortable note.

The other major difference is the repertoire available to McCormack and Brownlee. The operatic tastes of the time scorned bel canto operas except for diva vehicles, and “old fashioned” cuts often made mince-eat of the tenor’s parts. Cabalettas were shorn if the tenor was lucky. If he was singing opposite Nellie Melba (which McCormack did many times), entire acts were cut—the diva demanded that the final scene of Lucia di Lammermoor be axed so the opera could end with her Mad Scene.

Thus it’s not surprising that McCormack’s early recordings feature a bunch of Irish songs, and the operatic selections are awkwardly chosen. His very first operatic records are, believe it or not, from Cav and Pag. There’s also “Celeste Aida.” Those looking for something approaching his legendary “Il mio tesoro” on the Victor label will be disappointed—many of the operatic selections sound like they were recorded simply because he was in the studio and he was recording “tenor greatest hits” along with the popular Irish and Italian songs.

“Celeste Aida” shows him pushing the very limits of his voice, even in a short 4-minute recording. It’s shocking to hear McCormack barking, but that’s what he does in this selection. These recordings provide an early glimpse of McCormack before he had the leverage to record selections that more flattered his voice (at least in operatic terms). But it’s not surprising that with McCormack eventually became an exclusive recitalist, singing what he wanted to sing, instead of what the prima donna allowed him to sing.

Special mention must be made to Ward Marston, who has made McCormack’s recordings sound clearer and more vibrant than any other remastering. He’s a national treasure in terms of preserving old but important recordings. I found some YouTube clips of McCormack’s Odeon recordings but none of them approach the clarity of sound Marston was able to achieve.

As a contrast, Lawrence Brownlee’s recital shows the increased respect the tenore di grazia has earned in the operatic world. This is not only due to the revival of many previously forgotten works by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Mercandante, etc. but standard performance practice of repertory staples. Nowadays the practice is to reinstate the cabalettas and “too difficult to sing” arias (like “Cessa di piu resistere”) so tenors who can sing all the fiendishly difficult runs and scales, and top it off with a solid high C are snatched up quicker than you can say “Ah mes amis.”

Brownlee’s relatively short album (only eigh tracks) show off his squeaky clean style, pleasant timbre, and of course, easy high C’s. A good sample of Brownlee’s style can be found in “Tu seconda” from Il Turco in Italia:

As you can say, every note is there, right on pitch, there’s no huffing and puffing through the scales. It’s, as I said, squeaky clean singing. But, but, but. Having seen Brownlee onstage and having heard his recordings, the kind of dull nice-guy syndrome that affects his stage performances also is a problem in the album. He’s a very refined singer, but he’s not a very expressive singer. When I first heard his voice and his skill, I thought, “Wow, beautiful voice, impressive technique” but it starts and ends there.

Brownlee is often compared to Juan Diego Flórez since they sing many of the same roles. Brownlee’s voice is rounder and warmer than Florez’s but Florez favors a fierce, emphatic attack on high notes and musical climaxes. Brownlee makes these aria sound more beautiful, Florez more exciting. It’s a tradeoff.

Perhaps more variety in his album selections would have helped. Brownlee’s eight Rossini arias heard individually are impressive, but heard one after another show a depressing sameness in approach and interpretation. He’s got so much going for him — beautiful voice, endless supply of high C’s, and he’s cute in that boyish clean-cut way. I just wish the result wasn’t so boring.


  • operaassport says:

    Pretty spot on review. Brownlee lacks vocal glamor, star power. Florez has it in spades.

    • FaustinaBordoni says:

      What an undesirable element you are! No amount of snarkiness will diminish Brownlee’s gifts and the high-level artistry he demonstrates on “Virtuoso Rossini Arias.”

      Since you can’t stop screaming about how inferior Brownlee is to Florez, let’s get the facts straight:

      (1) Lawrence Brownlee’s schedule indicates that he’s in high demand these days. At the MET he’s delivered stellar performances in several star tenor roles. In my mind, one role stands apart from the rest: Rinaldo in ARMIDA. Brownlee was sensational, eclipsing every other singer on stage--including Renee Fleming. Juan Diego Florez would never touch Rinaldo. Why? As wonderful as Florez is, he just doesn’t have the chops for it.

      (2) Brownlee currently possesses a stronger and more durable top register than Florez. As another commentator mentioned, Florez no longer sings Arturo; he dropped it after a few performances because he just could not hang. He and Brownlee are roughly the same age.

      (3) As to vocal agility, no HONEST person with a pair of DECENTLY WORKING ears would declare Florez’s coloratura superior to Brownlee’s. The bottomline is this: they both can sing sizzling, accurate coloratura at hair-raising speeds. Thank God we have them both!

      Your operaass-ism toward Brownlee--by the way, I read it as covert racist bitchy bigotry--is baseless. Brownlee is an immensely gifted artist who, as far as I know, has done nothing evil to you or anyone else. So until Brownlee starts defecating on Rossini or Bellini’s music--I’m certain he’ll never do that--you have no legitimate reason for defecating on him.

  • Krunoslav says:

    I thought the recital very exciting., including the high Ds. True, * any* Rossini tenor album gets a little monotonous after a while-- that is not Brownlee’s fault. And he certainly varied his timbre more than does JDF who always sounds exactly the same to me. Both are first rate Rossini tenors.

    Opera Asshole with his spectacular verbal sensitivity keeps stating his slam-dunk position; has he actually heard this album?

    • jl says:

      I have this album, as an online MP3. I think there is a certain dullness to the way it is recorded, and plan to get the CD as I believe the sound will have more fullness. It does NOT sound boring to me. I am constantly amazed at the stylish, refined and committed singing which is on this disc after several hearings at different times. I wonder if the reviewer of the CD and the person commenting below have listened to others do a recital of Rossini Arie for Tenors. The particular selections do have a bit of variety, though it is subtle. They are all about the same length and shortness of the running time does not bother. There WILL be a sense of sameness due to it all being by the same composer and the structures are quite similar. The Turco aria feels quite different from the Donna del Lago Act 2 aria, they have very different impacts. I also wonder if the reviewer has heard Mr. Brownlee in Fille du Regiment or Barbiere or his incredibly moving Pearl Fishers Duet and aria. I have heard him live in recital and at two performances in ARMIDA. He is anything but a bland artist. There is a very sensitive and involved connection he creates with his audiences. Also, he has an aristocratic bent to his singing and that defines him in his own way. Mr. Florez has a completely different personna, and I prefer to listen to Mr. Brownlee for a number of reasons. This recital deserves more respect than the kind of dismissal as boring. I don’t try to listen to it end to end. I don’t listen to any artist’s Rossini recital end to end. EVER. It always seems too much of a similar thing, no matter how impressive the singing. For both male and female artists, it has been true for me. Just bits at a time. And in this recital, they are FANTASTIC.

    • Poison Ivy says:

      I think Brownlee doesn’t act very well. Neither does Florez but Florez has worked out a comic schtick that’s amusing, but Brownlee is still a stand and sing kind of guy. I also find Florez has sharper, more pointed diction. I agree both are first-rate Rossini tenors.

      As for John McCormack, because everyone needs to hear this recording before they die:

    • operaassport says:

      Kruno: how lovely you are. You must be fun at parties :)
      Yes, I’ve heard the album. I agree with the review. Brownlee is a lovely singer, nothing more. Florez is a star, and has been for 20 years. No amount of your venom is going to change either situation.

      • laddie says:

        What exactly is your definition of a *star*? Brownlee is MUCH in demand around this country and in Europe. I am not sure how much starrier he can get. I have heard him live in the USA in two major houses. I have listened to recitals and performances from all over Europe as well. WTF?

  • forthesakeofargument says:

    I disagree. I would MUCH rather listen to Mr. Brownlee sing than JDF. While they are both technically brilliant, almost to the point of boredom, Larry has a much more pleasing timbre to my ear. My biggest complaint with this recording lies in its mixing. You can hear the way they compressed the range of dynamics, in much the same way that they do in pop music.

    • laddie says:

      Ditto. The bleating is much more obvious in JDF than in LB. JDF has a bit of wobbly vibrato at the top now and I think Larry covers a bit more than JDF up there. I appreciate the brilliant metallic in JDF and hear less brilliance but more warmth in Larry’s timbre. I would agree that bel canto expression could be greater in Mr. Brownlee’s performances, nonetheless I find him when not overly nervous very expressive in stage deportment, especially in his facial expressions.

  • Orlando Furioso says:

    It should be noted that the unexpectedly “heavy” repertory is pretty much what McCormack was actually doing onstage at that stage of his career. His Met performances were the three popular Puccini items (plus Traviata, which is more what would be expected of his kind of voice now), and his Covent Garden debut opera was Cav.

  • Cocky Kurwenal says:

    I’d be really cautious of making assertions such as the one that McCormack had the same type of voice as Brownlee -- I don’t think it can be at all clear that this is the case, based on recordings made 1906 -- 1909. Recordings made when the technology was in its infancy tend to make all voices sound ultra-light. Even the great Wagnerians of the day often sound like light coloraturas, and there is only so far one’s imagination and experience can flesh out what one actually hears to come up with some kind of idea of what these people actually sounded like live.

    • Poison Ivy says:

      I actually think the early recording process was more cruelly exposing of what a singer could or could not do than the recording process is in now, with splicing, autotune, mixing, etc. For instance if John McCormack huffed and barked during Celesta Aida he had nothing that would “improve” the performance. The high C (or lack of one) couldn;t be retouched.

      I also think that yes, the recording technique was primitive, but the old recordings are surprisingly vivid in their ability to capture the essence of a singer.

      Here’s a comparison of McCormack vs. Caruso in “Una furtiva lagrima”. I don’t think you need have “been there” to think that McCormack’s voice sounds lighter, more like a tenore di grazia than Caruso:

      • Poison Ivy says:

        Also useful to find reviews of his performances in Boheme. Reviewer was pretty clear that he found the voice too “light” for the part:


        It was perhaps not wholly fortunate that Mr. McCormack reappeared here first in this opera, for the part is not one best adapted for him. It needs a livelier dramatic temperament than his is, a potency of more passionate expression than he can give in either his singing or his action. First, in the first act, where there is much roistering and, last evening at least, considerable shouting, he was not conspicuous in the mêlée; nor in the duet with Mimi did he express the sudden surge of passion that overflows at their meeting.

        The voice is a light one; it necessarily lacks some of the swelling and stentorian effects that have become familiar in La Bohème, and which, in large part, it was written to provide. But what Mr. McCormack contributed here, and later in the opera was much beautiful singing, of its kind unsurpassable in quality of tone, in purity of diction, in finish of phrase, and in most of the subtler graces of the art that are not always the first to be recognized. There are other operatic works in which it may be hoped he will be heard wherein Mr. McCormack’s extraordinary qualities as a singer will count for more than they do in La Bohème.

      • armerjacquino says:

        Someone’s going to do it, might as well be me- no high C in ‘Celeste Aida’.

        • Poison Ivy says:

          I was referring to his high C in Che gelida manina which wasn’t pretty.

        • Cocky Kurwenal says:

          Yes, quite!

          But coming back to PI’s assertions, apart from that aspect, which in any case is easier to understand and make adjustments of perception for, I definitely strongly disagree with the following:

          “I also think that yes, the recording technique was primitive, but the old recordings are surprisingly vivid in their ability to capture the essence of a singer.”

          In a sense this is true, but I think the gulf between how these people sound on recordings, and how we are told they sounded live, is just massive, and can’t be overcome.

          The comparison with Caruso is only helpful in relative terms -- the contemporary review is more illuminating.

          • Poison Ivy says:

            Ok well the contemporary review said a lot of the things that are consistent with McCormack’s recordings. It doesn’t sound (via recordings) that he had a very ringing, secure top, nor skill with declamatory verismo passages. The things he was praised for: “quality of tone, in purity of diction, in finish of phrase, and in most of the subtler graces of the art that are not always the first to be recognized” are exactly the things that McCormack record collectors appreciate in his recordings.

            There are some singers where the recording process really seems to have not captured how they sounded. For instance Marcella Sembrich was praised to the skies for her musicality and taste, but her recordings show a singer with rather reckless, almost improvised ornamentations and not much beauty of tone. But many times, the contemporary reviews are remarkably consistent with what we hear on the recordings.

            For instance, this is the very FIRST review of Ponselle’s debut in Leonora. The critic picks up on, for one, Ponselle’s rich, almost mezzo-like timbre, but then notes that her highest notes are not as “free” and “round” in their resonance. Rosa Ponselle later transposed a lot of her music to avoid high notes, and so it’s telling that even in 1918, when she was a nobody who made her Met debut, critics praised the beauty of her voice and then noted that her upper register was weaker.

            Miss Ponselle unquestionably is a woman of very unusual talent, and fortunately nature has endowed her with an excellent stage-presence, as was especially notable when she appeared in the masculine disguise which this Leonora, like another and greater one, assumed. There may be difference of opinion regarding the exact character of the new singer’s voice. It has the mellow opulence and warmth of a mezzo in the lower register and responds easily below C natural. Yet , has her voice the range of a dramatic soprano? Only her middle tones are slightly throaty and her high tones not quite free and round in their resonance.

  • Grane says:

    Is anyone else having trouble opening Parterre from an iPhone? I get a pop up ad which redirects several times and I end up in the app store. I do have ads blocked, presumably. This isn’t logging in, just opening the site.

    • bluecabochon says:

      Yes! I am having this problem too, which started yesterday. I can get in to the site without popups if I go on via Facebook through a link on JJ’s page. I wondered if something had changed with my settings but I looked and nothing seemed different.

    • vilbastarda says:

      Yes, started yesterday. After googling a little I found an imperfect solution. Go to: Settings > Safari > Advanced > Javascript -- disable. Also clear history and cookies
      Settings > Privacy > Advertising > Limit Add Tracking -- enable

      The downside is that you won’t be able to play youtube clips from Parterre. Also, not sure if all of these steps are necessary, as I haven’t done a one by one study, but it stops the problem for now, and I can live with that.

  • mercadante says:

    I saw both Brownlee and Florez in the same production in Philadelphia, Italianate in Algieri, si it is easy for me to compare them as they were doing the same role in the same acoustic with the same staging. Florez was mercurial. Brownlee was merely skillful. He may have been off that night, but Browlee’s top was a bit cloudy, while Florez’ top had a lot of carrying ping. Both sounded more dynamically and coloristic ally interesting in the live acoustic go the Academy of Music than they do in the recording studio where both come off as monochromatic.

    • Poison Ivy says:

      I think Florez is more outgoing of a performer. As I said, NOT an actor, but he’s a lively performer. He’s also a cute dancer. Brownlee despite his cute looks never looks entirely comfortable onstage.

      Here’s a comparison of “Una furtiva lagrima.” Brownlee has the more beautiful voice, but Florez I think better captures the joy of this aria:

      • operaassport says:

        Anyone who saw Florez in Elisir at the MET with Damrau knows he can be a good actor.

        Florez is an historic singer. There is simply no debate about that.
        Brownlee is a lovely singer but dull as dishwater.

        It’s nice to have them both but only one of them is making it into the opera encyclopedia.

        • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

          It also doesn’t help that Brownlee seems to have an angry look on his face.

  • la vociaccia says:

    I completely agree with the assessment of Brownlee; he just doesn’t excite me as a musician. He just never really takes off, for me. It all sits in this ‘perfectly pleasant’ range of musicality, without ever getting terribly distinctive or interesting.

    As for JDF Vs Brownlee, I’ll leave that to others. I don’t really go out of my way for either these days. I know they are meant to represent a new school of leggiero singing, but I don’t think either have approached Stanford Olsen.

  • Milady DeWinter says:

    “but I think the gulf between how these people sound on recordings, and how we are told they sounded live, is just massive, and can’t be overcome.” -- armerjacquino

    I get what you mean, but if you go to the Maplesons and listen to the Sembrich tracks there, e.g. Fille du Regiment, Parla Valse, Queen of the Night -- you do get a sense of the warmth, ring, and brilliance of the voice, astonishing top Ds incldued. And this when Sembrich was already a veteran of 25 years of singing.
    Some singers were definitely flattered, and in a sense “made” by the acoustic process (i.e. Galli-Curci), but I think the acoustincs of Tetrazzini, Caruso, Farrar and many others can tell us a lot, too. True, it is sometimes like listening to an “aural photographic negative” instead of the print, but as PI has pointed out, these are unedited “live” takes all. And by 1923-24, when recording technology was literally months away from the switch to electric, it can be hard to tell the difference between the very late acoustics and the early electrics.
    Re: Brownlee vs. JDF. I’m in the “prettier Brownlee but, sharper JDF” camp. However for tonight’s Puritani, I wish we were getting Mr. Camarena instead of either.

    • Milady DeWinter says:

      Oops -- the post I quoted was originally said by cockyk, not armer-sorry! Such a good thread….

  • JackJack says:

    “But it’s not surprising that with McCormack eventually became an exclusive recitalist, singing what he wanted to sing, instead of what the prima donna allowed him to sing.” What on earth are you talking about? What diva would only “allow” him to record certain repertoire?

  • Ilka Saro says:

    It’s hard to resist drawing comparisons between Florez and Brownlee. I agree that Brownlee has a much prettier voice, and that Florez’ character as an interpreter is more engaging.

    Florez is a little more experienced than Brownlee, and I recall that Florez’ singing was already disarmingly subtle more than a decade ago when I first heard him. But I think that for any artist, the real school for development is the stage itself, and I assume that Brownlee is going to grow as an artist as the years pass.

  • antikitschychick says:

    congrats to Brownlee for putting out a Rossini album :-D he is as the title says, a virtuoso and we are lucky to have him! As for the comparisons with JDF…well they sing much of the same rep but they are totally distinct artists to me…I don’t think that one is better than the other, they are just different and I think that’s great since, para los gustos se hicieron los colores as we say. It is worthwhile to note that JDF is more experienced than Lawrence B as Ilka Saro pointed out, but I think this makes Brownlee’s accomplishments all the more impressive…there is room to grow but with time I think it’ll happen. Ultimately I love them both as I think they both having something special to offer vocally (and artistically).