Ever more frequently the work of record companies results in damage to the
legacy of their artists. A current example is a so-called "Ultimate Collection" published by
RCA/BMG in the "Artists of the Century" series, marking the death forty years ago (on September
9, 1960) of Swedish tenor Jussi Björling at the age of 49.
The word "Edition" is inappropriate for
this mean and indiscriminately cobbled-together collection, comprised of some technically
grotesquely-distorted recordings which are falsely dated or not dated at all. They distort and
disfigure the image of one of the most brilliant tenors of the twentieth century whom RCA can
thank for ten complete opera performances, classics all. Il Trovatore, Manon Lescaut and Aïda are vocally
Pagliacci and Turandot are
Only through naive ignorance can the
project degenerate, as it does here, into a careless assemblage of arias by Verdi, Puccini,
Mascagni, Gounod, Borodin, Giordano, Flotow, Donizetti and Tschaikovski -- sometimes single
titles, sometimes scraps cut unclean out of complete recordings, not organized in any way by
composer or stylistic considerations. But any singer intends his voice [in a given selection]
to express [aspects of] a characterization, for instance the age and mental state of his
And then mistake upon mistake! The
November 30, 1950 recording of the duet from Don Carlo is dated June 3, 1951. The duets
from Pearlfishers and Otello recorded on that day are
ascribed to November 30 of the previous year. The selections from La Forza del Destino and
La Bohème, recorded
in 1951, are postdated somehow to November 30, 1957. The correct dates can be found not only in
the complete Phonography (by Harald Henrysson), but also in earlier RCA/BMG long-playing
records. Instead of keeping the duet recordings together as documentation of star vocalism,
they are separated by recordings of arias and duets made four or five, or even nine years
later. And because of digital re-mastering, the recordings are so hard and shrill that even
Björling's richly-overtoned voice stings the ears.
In any case, it’s
comforting that the legacy of the singer has in the last few years spread far and wide, even
though that hasn’t happened in a systematic way. From EMI, a four-CD set appeared with opera
and operetta arias, lieder and songs, that Björling recorded between 1930 and 1950.
Unfortunately, the (six) sides are missing which the eighteen-year old made in September (and
December) 1929, with his still purely lyric but already perfectly formed voice. The lad’s
singing of “For you alone” perfectly voices the yearning of a young lover, and brings tears to
one’s eyes. Bluebell has brought out more than a dozen CDs with excerpts from (and out of)
opera performances, radio broadcasts, concerts and diverse rarities, some with alternative
takes. A portion of these recordings is from Björling's regular guest appearances in Sweden.
These live recordings directly demonstrate with what generous dedication Björling sang to his
audiences. But most important is the publishing of [recordings by] Arturo Toscanini Society,
Myto, Legato Classics, and on the same level "The Radio Years" excerpts from Verdi's
Il trovatore, Ballo in Maschera, Don
Carlo and Requiem, as well as Gounod's
Faust and Roméo et
At the performance
of Roméo et Juliette at the Met on Feb. 1, 1947, the tenor , along with the magical
Brazilian soprano Bidú Sayão, must have been kissed by the gods. He sings the passionate
cavatina ("Ah, lève-toi, soleil!") of the inwardly burning Roméo with masterful emphases; every
phrase spun out in a legato stream and with
effortless concentration of tone at the two ascending lines to a high "B" at "parais."
Similarly magical is the sudden pianissimo at the phrase "qui vient caresser..sa joue"--
the soft end of the phrase maintaining the same healthy resonance.
The appeal of the shining
forte notes lies
not in their loudness, but in their intensity. Tender, glowing love lies in the tone of his
voice: When he sings "Nuit divine" with his partner in the tomb scene ("Salut! Tombeau") it is
saturated with agonizing despair.
It is said that Björling was a lethargic
performer. But for him who really listens carefully, there appears through the "eyes of the
ears" a passionate human being. That was stressed by his sometime recording partner Victoria de
los Angeles. At the death of Mercutio, for example, Roméo takes on a voice of blazing, raging
anger at Tybalt. Banned from Verona, he crowns the finale of the act with a high C of sheer
unimaginable brilliance. The listener is perceptibly shaken by this passionate
cri du coeur.
The voice of the
young tenor stood out because it had an unusual luminous shining strength at the top, a silvery
timbre of choice quality, richly colored and often shaded with melancholy. If ever any tenor
was spared a vocal crisis, it was Björling, even if in some of his recordings in his fiftieth
year--namely (Trovatore) and Tosca -- he sounds
strained, rougher and grainier , sometimes also sharp, singing a phrase too high and
allowing single held notes to tear off, instead of letting them pulsate and end without a
perceptible thrust of air. The volume [of the voice] was not great, but he didn't have
the slightest trouble projecting into the last rows of the Met.
The proportions of
the registers was ideal: a masculine ring in the lower register, a sonorous vibrato in the
middle range, an effortless glide into the so-called passagio and above that a secure focused
high register up to D-flat, which can be heard in both the tenor solo "Cujus animam" from
Rossini's Stabat Mater and the operetta piece "Ich hab' kein Geld, bin vogelfrei" from
Millöcker's Bettelstudent. The measurements of Swedish sound engineer Johann Sundberg demonstrate the
exceptional concentration of energy in the singer's high range, due to the ideally produced
voice at approximately 3500 Hertz. Persons who heard him report that Björling's sound output
was of such intensity, that it felt like an electric shock.
Björling never attempted to imitate the
Caruso bright-baritonal ring as heard in others such as Beniamino Gigli (or later del Monaco
and Domingo) -- except for one single recording, in which he undertook a demonstration of this
manner [of singing] in Tosti's "L'alba separa dalla luce l'ombra." And unlike Gigli, Aureliano
Pertile or Richard Tucker, he didn't allow himself to be infected with veristic mannerisms. Nor
did one experience that he imitated emotions as gushed-forth bucketfuls of tears or with
antiquated heroic screaming. He was a classicist singer, but no belcantist. He didn't sing
ornate music, and if he did, [it was] without ornamentation (perhaps Don Ottavio's "Il mio
tesoro" or Nemorino's "Una furtiva").
The pianist Ivor Newton recounted in his
memoirs At the Piano that Björling never had to warm up before concerts. Due to the training
he got from his father as a boy in preparation for the professional "Björling Quartet" (there
are several recordings from 1920), he was spared technical problems with his voice for the rest
of his life. After relatively short studies with baritone John Forsell, he was allowed on July
21, 1930, to sing in the Stockholm Opera the small role of the Lamplighter in
Manon Lescaut. His
major debut was on August 20, as Don Ottavio. After 5 years of study, during which, among
others, he sang Arnoldo (William
Tell), Des Grieux (Manon Lescaut) [sic], Erik, Almaviva
(Rossini's Barber of
Seville), the Duke in Rigoletto, Wilhelm Meister
(Mignon), Alfredo (Traviata), Vladimir
(Prince Igor), Cavaradossi, Tamino, Faust, Belmonte, Florestan, Turiddu, Manrico,
Faust (Berlioz), Rodolfo, Tonio (Daughter of the
Regiment), he came to the Vienna Staatsoper.
Under Victor de Sabata, he debuted as Radamès and sang, in Swedish, in an ensemble that
sang in Italian. His repertoire included more than 50 roles, plus Masses and 400-500
songs. His musical memory was extraordinary, and once he had studied the music, he
remembered it securely and could frequently perform it without rehearsal.
In 1937, he made his
debut in Chicago as the Duke of Mantua, 1938 at the Met as Rodolfo, 1939 in Covent Garden as
Manrico -- there is a recording of the performance conducted by Vittorio Gui. He sings
the stretta ["Die quella pira"] in C major and crowns it with a fullthroated high C
that, with a good wind, one must have been able to hear in Stockholm. But far more important
and spellbinding is the lyrical flow of his singing in the duets and the
cantabile [“Mal reggendo”], and the dynamic flexibility in the aria "Ah sì"
with a fine trill at "para".
Already in 1929, before his debut, he
had made recordings -- until 1936 in Swedish, and with a splendid voice and with the
limitations of youth. His first Italian recordings, his diction not yet idiomatic, were a
sensation -- among the 46 titles which, until 1950, were made for HMV, one finds pearls:
"Celeste Aida," "Cielo e mar," "O Paradiso," "Salut demeure," Manrico's arias, "Nessun dorma"
(with climactic brilliance), "Ah! Lève-toi, soleil" and Riccardo's "Dì tu se fedele" (sung with
He was supposed to record Riccardo in
1960 under Georg Solti. What blighted the project -- whether problems and unreliability due to
the severe alcoholism and heart disease of the singer, or the rigidity of the conductor -- one
can scarcely determine. Anyway, the 29-year old Björling, in his arguably best Verdi role, can
be heard live: excerpts from the Met under Ettore Panizza, Toscanini's right hand. His partner
was Zinka Milanov, who claimed she had the most beautiful voice in the world, and shows here
that she didn't have the slightest reason to need faint-hearted modesty. Björling sings his
role with incomparable verve, brilliance, elegance, musicality, spontaneity -- paradoxically
without Riccardo's aria from the last act "Ma se m’è forza perderti.” [The question is] whether
the singer wanted to spare himself -- the part is the longest of all Verdi tenor roles (except
the St. Petersburg version of Forza) -- and the aria lies in the most uncomfortable
any case, in the portrait gallery of tenor heroes of Italian and French opera, Björling's Roméo
and Riccardo are counted among the masterpieces.
Translated by Karl and Toby Hekler, with help on one especially difficult sentence from Yoël
Arbeitman and Harald Henrysson. Thanks are also due to Bea Bobotek and Armin Diedrich for their