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Jussi Björling (1911-60) Opera Arias and Duets (1936-44)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

La Bohème: Che gelida manina
La Bohème: O soave fanciulla +
Tosca: Recondita armonia
Tosca: E lucevan le stelle
La fanciulla del West’ Ch’ella mi creda libero
Turandot: Nessum Dorma
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Aida: Se quell guerrier…Celeste Aida
Rigoletto: La donna è mobile
Rigoletto: É il sol dell’ anima +
Rigoletto: Questa o quella
Il Trovatore: Ah sì, ben mio
Il Trovatore: Di quella pira
Un Ballo in Maschera’ Di’ tu se fedele
Amilcare PONCHIELLI (1843-1886)

La Gioconda: Cielo e mar
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)

L’africaine: Mi batte il cor…O Paridiso
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Manon: Instant Charmant…En fermant les yeux
Georges BIZET (1838-1870)

Carmen: La fleur que tu m’avais jetée
Friedrich von FLOTOW (1812-1883)

Martha: M’appari tutt’amor
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Faust: Salut! Demeure chaste et pure
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)

Andrea Chénier: Come un bel dì di maggio
Fedora: Amor ti vieta
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1858-1919)

Pagliacci: Recitar!…Vesti la giubba
Pietro MASCAGINI (1863-1945)

Cavalleria rusticana: Mamma, quell vino
Jussi Björling (tenor)
Hjördis Schymberg (soprano) +
Orchestra conducted by Nils Grevillius
Recorded 1936-44
NAXOS 8.110754 [65.34]

Confronted by the third volume of the Naxos Björling series my natural reaction is to hold up my hands in simple admiration and refer readers to my reviews of the first two. Such beauty of tone and expressive freedom did tend to be taken for granted in the 1950s but these earlier discs show just how and why he was so admired and why the promise of his post-1929 sides was only to be exceeded by the glorious reality of his more mature recordings. And such we have here, dating from 1936-44, taking him to the cusp of international stardom and beyond (Vienna in 1936, London in 1937 and a New York Met debut in 1938).

The earlier slight cover in the voice and the occasional phrasal gaucheries are now a thing of the past; unforced lyricism and beauty of tone reign supreme. His Che gelida manina is splendid, eloquent throughout the scale – though if anything Celeste Aida is even finer, with mezza voce, light and shade and real projective power. Subtle portamanti adorn La donna è mobile and in Ch’ella mi creda libero from La fanciulla del West’ we hear his superb technique allied to equally advanced powers of expression. O Paridiso shows the voice in all its youthful vigour, forward and ringing, with an admixture of sunlight and bristle – but the technical achievement entirely subordinated to the musical effectiveness of the interpretation.

He first recorded in French in 1938 – his earliest recordings had all been made, as was the custom, in his native language – and we have evidence of it here. He never sang in Carmen or Manon on stage, though he did sing Faust. The Massenet and Bizet are beautifully and alluringly done, with sustained legato and effortless elegance. His Gounod is a relative disappointment – rather aloof and relatively slow. Still, listen to his duets with soprano Hjördis Schymberg, with whom he recorded a number of duets, and one has to admire the sheer softness and control of their singing – compare and contrast with the bawling of today’s superstars. But, yes, he has the steel and the declamation for Giordano’s Amor ti vieta but more importantly he has the sensitivity of phrasing to irradiate it from within. These are not showpiece arias in his hands so much as fully assumed roles that he inhabits. He doesn’t resort to stock gestures to convey these feelings – no sobbing or half catches in the throat – just sure tonal beauty, rhythmic precision and intelligence behind them.

As before in this series the copies used are in unsullied condition. They allow unimpeded admiration for this tenor titan and his continuing sway on one’s heart.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by John Leeman

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