John Charles Thomas in Opera and Song – John Charles Thomas, bass-baritone/ Victor Symphony Orchestra/ Frank Tours/ Carroll Hollister, piano – Nimbus

by | Aug 23, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

John Charles Thomas in Opera and Song –  John Charles Thomas, bass-baritone/ Victor Symphony Orchestra/ Frank Tours/ Carroll Hollister, piano

Nimbus Prima Voce series NI 7831, 78:26 (Distrib. Allegro) ****:

I first saw, rather than heard, John Charles Thomas (1891-1960) on the Groucho Marx program, “You Bet Your Life”: kinescoped around 1951, the confrontation proved fascinating, since it was one of the few times Groucho ever paid absolute deference to a guest, so often the butt of his wicked humor. Groucho rose from his stool, bowed slightly and shook Thomas’ hand. In the course of the program, Groucho asked Thomas what he thought of rock ‘n’ roll. “I can sum it up simply,” proffered Thomas. “It lacks sincerity.” Thomas then segued into “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” pure ambrosia. Later, when I thought of Thomas’ quip about rock, I realized what an economically correct answer it was: so much of rock ‘n’ roll is sung falsetto.

My second encounter with John Charles Thomas occurred in Atlanta, during a discussion with Boris Goldovsky about Thomas’ personality. “He was so irresponsible,” admitted Goldovsky. “He would get totally drunk before a performance and then sing half an aria in French and the other half in Italian or German. He might well have a different girl under each arm. But the voice–whatever came out–it was honey.” This Nimbus disc is the companion to John Charles Thomas–An American Classic (NI 7838); the material there as well as here, 1932-1942, having been taken from the RCA “Vintage” Series of vocal restorations. The sheer strength of Thomas’ resonant baritone proves most affecting in a Neapolitan song like Mattei, Non e ver (1939), where declamation, diction, and innate sweetness in the vocal line display Thomas’ uncanny projection. That Thomas could have made a powerful helden-baritone finds proof in Wagner’s evening song from Tannhauser (1932; dir. Shilkret), marked by a beautifully paced inner tempo. For a volcanic sense of the schadenfroh (taking pleasure in destruction) try Iago’s Credo in un Dio crudel (1939), where characterization meets flawless technique.

The well-renowned Largo al factotum (19 August 1939) remains a true classic of its kind, witty, irreverent, bravura buffo. Thomas whistles, scats, patters, and projects a spinto rendition, rife with cosmic irony. His Di Provenza il mar, Germont, Sr.’s aria to discourage inappropriate affection between his son and Violetta, combines righteous indignation with the compassion only a mature man can know. The French arias–from Herodiade and Hamlet–display a natural idiom and nasal resonance. The English songs, like O’Hara’s There is no death (1941; dir. O’Connell), ring with passion and heraldry, as well as a touch of brogue. “Something for Everyone” provided the rubric for Virgil Thomson’s classic review of a concert by John Charles Thomas. Sooner or later, Thomas’ extraordinary range of material, rivaled perhaps only by Robeson, would captivate any listener. Whether it be Bridge’s tender E’en as a Lovely Flower or Duparc’s Chanson Triste, a sentiment would be revealed, an aspiration expressed, in its rarified purity. The piano artistry of Carroll Hollister is quite impressive as well, as in Piggott’s Shallow Brown (arr. Grainger, 1942). Hollister worked with James Melton and Oscar Shumsky on some Rachmaninov songs that need CD restoration. The last song on the Thomas disc, I Passed By Your Window, sounds like a sweet, plain ballad we might hear in an old Western movie saloon – perfect Americana.

— Gary Lemco

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