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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.

34 comments

  • 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).