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by Anna-Lisa Björling & Andrew Farkas
Amadeus Press, 1996; ISBN 1-57467-010-7; Hardback; 456 pages. $39:95
Amazon UK £29.99  Amazon US $31.96

Critic Alan Blyth, has written that Jussi Björling was "the greatest tenor of the century." In a Classic CD survey, not too long ago, readers voted Jussi Björling 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." It was said that Jussi's intonation was so true to pitch that some conductors in Stockholm remarked that an orchestra could tune by his voice.

This book published, in 1996, was written by the singer's widow, Anna-Lisa Björling and Andrew Farkas, director of libraries at the University of North Florida, and co-author of a book on Caruso, and editor of another on LawrenceTibbett.

The book is most fascinating when it describes Jussi's art and his interaction with his fellow artists. For instance -- 'Jussi was helped by his phenomenal memory - he knew not only his own part but also that of his supporting actress…He always learned the words and the music together; he regarded them as inseparable. If he came to a difficult passage…he drew one of his special "heads" with a red or blue pencil. A round circle marked where he should enter. A sad face in red, with eyes, nose and frowning mouth, indicated that just there he should sing with pain and tears in his voice; a smiling face meant he should sound happy ... He said, "To sing a high C is like building a skyscraper. It needs a good foundation to build on!" Gradually Jussi reached enormous heights; once I clearly remember, he sang a G above high C. His coloratura technique was fantastic too - every note was well defined and distinct, and he didn't aspirate between notes. The diabolical thing was that he made it all seem so easy!'

Chaliapin seems to have had a reputation for being difficult and temperamental. Even bouts of carousing couldn't dampen his formidable talent and the book describes a Stockhom performance of Faust in which he was such a frightening Prince of Darkness, and let out such a blood-curdling howl, that the production's Marguerite almost fainted. Jussi found Richard Tauber natural and self effacing, Grace Moore beautiful and warm hearted and notorious for her steamy love affairs. 'She didn't care the least whether they were married, nor did some of the tenors; this appetite for men made her known in music circles as "Crazy Moore"' -- but she deflated the braggart and womanising Ezio Pinza saying, "He just goes zip, zip, zip and leaves you in the cold!"'

The book relates how Jussi had little time for the modernistic ideas of Peter Brook and how he clashed with Rudolf Bing of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and with Solti over interpreting Verdi's Ballo in maschera. Jussi Björling was possibly the only artist to make both accoustic and electric 78 rpm recordings and monophonic and stereophonic LPs. His earliest recording was made when he was only nine, in New York with his father and brothers who formed a singing ensemble. (His father David Björling, an accomplished musician as well as a boxer and blacksmith, had been the boys' first but brilliant teacher.) Jussi's last recording just before he died, in 1960, was of the Verdi Requiem. The book details some of his significant recordings including the famous Beecham recording of La bohème; and the Leinsdorf recording of Turandot that won the very first Grammy for best classical performance, operatic or choral, in 1960; and Jussi's recording of Butterfly which won another Grammy in 1961.

The book, of course, covers Björling's life beginning with his boyhood experiences singing in the Björling Quartet with his brothers (Olle, Gösta and Kalle) and his father. It charts his rise from his early successes with the Swedish Royal Opera through to triumphs in Copenhagen, Vienna, London and then America and throughout the world. His marriage and home life are covered and Anna-Lisa does not shrink from revealing the darker side of Jussi's character, the revelation that he had fathered a bastard son and that he was a persistent alcoholic who could become difficult and argumentative, disappearing on his binges days at a time. Unfortunately his often-cancelled engagements, due to genuine health difficulties, were often thought of as due to drunkenness. His battles against ill-health are documented: sciatica, laryngitis, bleeding stomach ulcers and heart problems. After his death, the autopsy revealed that it was a miracle Jussi had survived as long as he did: his enlarged heart had been ravaged by the heart attacks.

Yet the overall impression is that here was a warm-hearted family man totally devoted to his art with a keen sense of humour and fond of the cinema of detective novels and sports like fishing and arm wrestling - he once beat Errol Flynn.

Ann-Lisa Björling was clearly a devoted wife (she was also a respected opera singer in her own right and appeared with her husband many times). However well-meaning she is, perhaps she is too close to her subject to be entirely objective. The weakness of the book is that it tends to be too repetitive; a more ruthless editing would have not gone amiss, the eulogies to Jussi's immense talent, although exceedingly well deserved are too numerous and in the end become tedious. More detail about Jussi's impressions of his colleagues would have been welcome. There are many interesting photographs and a bibliography and a chronological listing of Jussi Björling's opera, operetta, and oratorio repertoire. The absence of a discography though is a serious omission. Nevertheless, this is a valuable source of reference.

Ian Lace

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