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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



The Very Best of Jussi BJÖRLING (tenor) 1911-1960
CD 1.
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Rigoletto, ‘Questa o quella’
Rigoletto, La donna e mobile’
Il Trovatore, ‘Ah si, ben mio’
Il Trovatore, ‘Di quella pira’
Un ballo in Maschera, ‘Di tu se fedele’,.’Forse la soglia… Ma se m’é’.
Aida, ‘Se quell guerrier io fossi!…Celeste Aida’.
Requiem, ‘Ingemisco’.
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

Stabat Mater, ‘Cujus animan’.
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1868)

L’Elisir d’amore, ‘Una furtive lagrima’.
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1834-1886)

La Gioconda, ‘Cielo e mar!’
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)

Fedora, ‘Amor ti vieta’.
Andrea Chenier, ‘ Come un bel di maggio’.
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)

L’arlesiana, ‘E la solita storia’.
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

Manon Lescaut, ‘Donna’ non vidi mai’ ‘Ah, Manon, mi tradisce’.
La boheme, ‘Che gelida manina’La fanciulla del West, ‘Ch’ella mi creda’.
La boheme, ‘In un coupe?..O Mimi, tu piu non torni’
Tosca, ‘Dammi I colori…Rencondita armonia’.
Tosca, ‘E lucevan le stelle’
Turandot, ‘Nessun dorma’.
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)

Cavalleria rusticana, ‘Mamma! Quell vino e generoso’
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)

Pagliacci, ‘Vesti la giubba’.
Pagliacci, ‘No! Pagliaccio non son’
CD 2
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)

L’Africaine, ‘Mi batte il cor..O paradiso’.
Georges Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Faust, ‘Salut! Demeure chaste et pure’.
Romeo et Juliette, ‘Ange adorable’
Romeo et Juliette, ‘Ah! Lève-toi, soleil’.
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Manon, ‘Instant charmant..En ferment les yeux’
Manon, ‘ Je suis seul!…Ah, fuyez, douce image’.
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)

Carmen, ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jéter’.
Les Pecheurs de perles, ‘Je crois entendre encore’.
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

‘Adelaide’
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

‘Morgen’ and ‘Cecile’
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

‘In the Silence of Night’ and ‘Lilacs’
Francesco Paolo TOSTI (1846-1916)

‘Ideale’
Eduardo Di CAPUA (1865-1917)

‘O sole mio’
Ruggero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)

‘Mattinata’.
Guy d’HARDELOT (1858-1926)

‘Because’
Rudolf FRIML (1879-1972)

‘Only a Rose’.
Henry Ernest GEEHL (1881-1961)

‘For You Alone’
Jaques OFFENBACH (1819-1875)

‘Au mont de trois dessées’ (sung in Swedish).
Carl MILLOCKER (1842-1899)

‘Ich hab’ kein Geld’ (sung in Swedish).
Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856)

‘Cantique de Noel’. (sung in Swedish).
Various orchestras and conductors. Recorded between 1936 and 1956.
Bargain Price.
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 75900 2 [2CDs: 78.19+75.46]
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After the unexpected death, in 1921, of Caruso at the early age of 48, a big gap was left in the tenor fach as he sang both lyric and the heavier roles with equal facility whatever the size of the theatre. In Italy, and particularly at the New York ‘Met’, Gigli was seen as the natural successor, despite the claims of Martinelli and Lauri-Volpi among others. Whilst Gigli could, and did sing the heavier roles, his voice was an essentially lyric instrument, and it was some years before a tenor emerged with a voice and technique that was equally at home in the lyric roles of Alfredo and Rodolfo as the heavier parts of Manrico and Radames. That the tenor was Swedish was unexpected; Italy viewed itself as having the monopoly! Björling, for it was he, had a career as a boy soprano touring the U.S. with his father’s ‘Björling Male Voice Quartet’. The training as a treble stood him in good stead as his post pubescent golden toned tenor voice emerged. His major debut was in 1930, as Don Ottavio at the Royal Opera Stockholm, a house where he was to sing over 600 performances during his 30 year career, a vast number considering his international career, but influenced by his spending most of the World War 2 years in Sweden. His international career started at the Vienna State Opera where he sang Radames under the great De Sabata’s baton in 1936. He reached the ‘Met’ in 1938 and Covent Garden the following year by which time he was widely recognised as a leading world tenor in both the lyric and heroic repertoire.

Björling was a prodigious recording artist, making over 150 78s, and then, following the advent of the LP, a number of complete operas for RCA. He also recorded Rodolfo in the renowned Beecham ‘New York’ Bohème, and Canio in Pagliacci for HMV (now part of EMI), both with Victoria de los Angeles the ‘house’ soprano. So what made this tenor a byword in the operatic world? The mid 1930s and 1940s recordings of Verdi arias (CD 1 tr 1-6) give many of the answers. First, exemplary diction, then evenness across the vocal range, from soft to full throttle as in the caballeta ‘Di quella pira, (CD 1 tr 4) with its ringing, unsqueezed, top note. Equally important was Björling’s ability to convey, by vocal means alone, what the words say, via subtle shading of tone, inflection and variation in vocal colour. Compare his Faust’s ‘Salut! demeure’ as he seduces Marguerite (CD 2 tr 2), with his heroic Radames (CD 1 tr 6); the first with honeyed head tone, the second fully from the chest. Should you be tempted to think that Pavarotti has the monopoly on ‘Nessun dorma’, then listen to the stream of effortless golden tone that Björling brings to the aria (CD 1 tr 19). It is this golden tone that marked the singer out, together with sensitive phrasing, feel for words and innate musicality.

This double disc issue represents the full range of his career for he was also a recitalist, with piano and orchestral accompaniment. The former are represented by Beethoven’s delightful ‘Adelaide’ and two of Strauss’s songs (CD 2 tr 9-11), whilst the latter range from a romantic ballad by Friml (CD 2 tr 18) through the classic Italian ‘O sole mio’ and Matinata (Cd 2 tr 14-16) to Rachmaninov (CD 2 tr 12-13). All are sung with the same vocal grace as the operatic excerpts referred to, albeit that the tenor’s command of languages is not always perfect. The recordings have been well remastered although the 1956 Bohème inevitably sounds fuller than the 1930s excerpts. I had great fun comparing some of the operatic tracks with extracts from the complete opera recordings he made for RCA in the 1950s (contained on ‘The Ultimate Collection’ devoted to the singer on that label). I was instantly struck that whilst the voice was fuller and richer in overtones on the later recordings, it is as golden and even in tone and remained a ‘true’ tenor with no baritonal hue. That evolution is represented on these discs also.

Björling recorded much repertoire in his native Swedish. I am grateful that EMI only included three such items (CD 2 tr 20-22) although the singer’s Offenbach captivated me and I wouldn’t have missed it (tr 20). This is an excellent representation of the art of a great singer who, like Caruso, died prematurely, and by coincidence at the same age. I recommend its purchase to all lovers of singing as an outstanding bargain to be cherished.

Robert J Farr



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