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Jussi Björling
Romantic Songs

Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nils Grevillius
CD-ROM Content SWEDISH SOCIETY SCD 1100 [51:30]

The songs (in their English translation titles) and not in order of singing:-

Hugo ALFVÉN: I Long For You; Now Take My Heart
Jean SIBELIUS Sigh, Rushes, Sigh; The Diamond on the March Snow
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Nature's Praise of God
Adolphe ADAM O Holy Night
Wihelm STENHAMMAR Sweden
August SÖDERMAN King Heimer and Aslaug The Enchanted Lake
Carl SJÖBERG Music
Ragnar ALTHÉN Thou Blessed Land
August KÖRLING Toward the Sea Evening Mood
Wilhelm PETERSEN- BERGER: Among the High Fir-Trees in the Forest; When I Walk Alone in the Dark Forest

The CD Content

In a Classic CD survey, not too long ago, readers voted Jussi Björling as their favourite tenor. As one critic so adroitly wrote in 1938, "Mr Björling's voice… has substance, sonority and compass…his breath support is truly magnificent, and he can command a flawless legato of prodigiously long sweep and spin a tone from an imposing fortissimo to a vanishing pianissimo. He possesses an extraordinarily even scale, his attack is remarkably pure, his mezza voce exquisite. Unlike most tenors, he is unembarrassed in the discreet use of the lower part of his extensive range."

In spite of his many international tours and engagements, Björling always remained a Swede at heart. He included a number of Swedish songs, often patriotic in character as encores in his annual concerts in Sweden This collection includes some of these, together with several ballads that were favourites of himself and his audiences. They were recorded in 1957-1959 with Nils Grevillius, chief conductor at the Royal Opera in Stockholm 1930-1958. One can sense the profound intuitive musical communication that had been established and built up over the years between Björling and Grevillius.

This month Classical Music on the Web is carrying a review of Björling's biography, Jussi by the singer's widow, Anna-Lisa Björling, and Andrew Farkas. It is suggested that the two reviews are read in conjunction with one another. (review to come later)

The concert opens with the two demanding Alfvén songs. 'I long for You', is a passionate exhortation with Björling's big voice rising to a tremendous final crescendo. Conversely, he is all poetic expression in the exquisite 'Now take My Heart', and just listen to his beautiful, delicate pianissimo ending. His virile heroic voice takes wing in the proud and independent spirit of 'Among the High Fir-Trees in the Forest'…"we have built our own little nest…I can still be contented in the company of my love and live and die happily in the mountains." In 'Toward the Sea' the voice soars confidently, defiantly against a storm-tossed sea.

In the epic ballad 'King Heimer and Aslaug' Björling demonstrates the warmth and richness of the lower registers of his voice. This beautiful song is interesting because of its origins in the heroic Old Norse sagas. It tells of Aslaug, daughter of Brünhilde and Siegfried, the man who killed Fafner. Hidden in a hollow harp, the child Aslaug is smuggled to Norway by the old king Heimer, so as not to fall victim of the political intrigues of the day. The other epic ballad by August Söderman, 'The Enchanted Lake' is about a youth who is tempted to pluck a beautiful water lily from the surface of an enchanted lake. He is too awed by the ghostly song he hears enticing him to pluck and be transformed and so he "wanders timorously in the mountains deprived of peace in his heart". Again this is a lovely but demanding song with a highly colourful orchestral accompaniment.

'Evening Mood' is a lovely nostalgic pastoral evocation of lakes and forests. 'Sweden', is regarded by many as the unofficial anthem of Sweden and Björling sings it with immense pride and affection. 'Thou Blessed Land' is another patriotic song in the same vein. One of the most meltingly beautiful melodies on the disc has to be Carl Sjöberg's 'Music' - "The heart that suffers from life's commotion Music to you, to you it wants to escape" - and, not surprisingly, Björling responds most affectingly.

The first of the two Sibelius songs is highly atmospheric with brilliant orchestral tone painting -- 'Sigh Rushes, sigh' is a narrative song, somewhat enigmatic, about a love lost beneath the waters of a lake. Björling is passionate and that top note is amazing. The second Sibelius piece, 'The Diamond on the March Snow' is equally evocative and passionate.

Beethoven's 'Nature's Praise of God' gives Björling the opportunity to show off the oaken strength of the voice in a more formal and sterner song. The final carol, 'O Holy Night', is Adam's best-known composition aside from his Giselle ballet music and the opera Le Postillon de Longjumeau. It was made famous by both Caruso and Björling and it makes a fitting final showcase for the singer's prodigious talents.

The CD-ROM element

The CD-ROM is very generous in features. It contains the text of every song so that you can read while you listen to each number. There is a fascinating documentary about the 1957 and 1959 recording sessions. Many captioned pictures and excerpts from some of the songs document their progress. We learn about the difficulties experienced with the bulky stereo recording equipment at the 1959 sessions and gain some appreciation of Björling's serious intermittent health difficulties at this time, including stomach bleeding and heart problems. We are told that a further planned session to record more songs was never accomplished because of Björling's tragically early death in 1960 when the singer was not yet 50 years old. The opportunities and challenges of many of the songs are covered, and a letter to Björling from Alfvén, about one of his two songs, included in the album, is displayed.

Additionally, there are full details about the composition of the original LPs from which this CD was compiled, and of the Jussi Björling Museum and the Jussi Björling Society.

If you buy only one recording this month, I unhesitatingly recommend it should be this one. 'Music' and 'Now take my heart' are still ringing in my ears; songs to die for.

Ian Lace

Reviews from previous months

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