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Jussi Björling Collection : vol. 4
Jussi Björling (tenor), *Robert Merrill (baritone), Royal Opera Orchestra [Sweden]/Nils Grevillius (1), Stockholm Concert Association Orchestra/Nils Grevillius (2), Swedish Radio Orchestra/Nils Grevillius (3), RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini (4)
Recorded in Sweden (items under Grevillius) and New York (items under Cellini), dates as above
Transfers by Stefan Lindström
NAXOS 8.110788 [73:37]



Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

Roméo et Juliette: Ah! Lève-toi, soleil (rec.6.IX.45) (1)
Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)

Manon: Je suis seul ! … Ah! fuyez, douce image (6.IX.45) (1)
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)

L’elisir d’amore: Una furtiva lagrima (?7.IX.45) (1)
Francesco CILEA (1866-1950)

L’arlesiana: E’ la solita storia (27.XI.47) (2)
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)

Manon Lescaut: Donna non vidi mai (15.IX.48) (1)
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)

Cavalleria rusticana: Ch’ella mi creda libero (15.IX.48) (1)
Benjamin GODARD (1849-1895)

Jocelyn: Berceuse (sung in English) (11.VIII.49) (2)
Georges BIZET (1838-1875)

Carmen: La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (19.IX.50) (3)
MASCAGNI

Cavalleria rusticana: Mamma ! … Quel vino è generoso (19.IX.50) (3)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

Don Carlo: Io l’ho perduta … Qual pallor … Dio, che nell’alma infondere* (30.XI.50) (4), Otello: O mostruosa colpa … Sì, pel ciel marmoreo giuro* (3.I.51) (4)
PUCCINI

La bohème: In un coupè … O Mimì, tu più non torni* (3.I.51) (4)
VERDI

La forza del destino: Solenne in quest’ora* (3.I.51) (4)
BIZET

Les pêcheurs de perles: Au fond du temple saint* (3.I.51) (4)
PUCCINI

La bohème : Che gelida manina (13.I.51) (4)
VERDI

Aida: Se quel guerrier io fossi … Celeste Aida (13.I.51) (4)
Amilcare PONCHIELLI

La Gioconda: Cielo e mar! (13.I.51) (4)

 

 

As the booklet note rightly points out, in several polls in different countries Jussi Björling has been selected as "the greatest tenor or even the greatest singer of the last century". To tell the truth, one of the penalties I have paid for living tucked away in Italy is that I have not, until now, encountered Björling’s art systematically, and I promised myself a treat. For listeners in England, America or many Northern European may not realize that their idol’s fame is a little more circumscribed than they imagine. In Italy, the country which loves to boast it is the land of "bel canto", it is quite easy to meet quite knowledgeable musicians and voice fanciers who have never heard of Björling at all.

So much the worse for them, you will say, and yet, if you play them some of the icon’s records, they are not exactly bowled over. Yes, he’s "bravo", they say – that untranslatable word which means so much more than "good", for it suggests a heartfelt participation in the judgement too – but "freddo" – "cold". A euro-in-the-slot Italian reaction to a Nordic singer? Well yes, it is true that the Italians find it difficult to believe that anyone born out of the Mediterranean basin can sing at all. But if you play the records "blind" the result is still the same.

And the trouble is, I am not sure I don’t agree. Yes, it’s a gorgeous voice, creamy and even until the medium high notes, but with a certain tightening on the top notes which means you don’t get that sheer gut satisfaction at a good "acuto" that you got from Caruso or Gigli, and Pavarotti too, whatever view you take of his latter career. And yes, he’s always in tune and musical in his phrasing – he was born into a family of musicians after all. But in all truth, do his interpretations take us very far into the heart of the composer? Is there much actual variety in the delivery? In any of the warhorses here (most of the pieces are just that), is there the personality we get from those three mentioned above, and several others too?

Take "Che gelida manina". You will probably never hear the opening sung so beautifully, everything in place, but is it not also a remarkably inert performance? No one has ever claimed that Giacinto Prandelli (on the first Tebaldi recording, also on Naxos) was the greatest singer of the century or even of the decade or two in which he worked, yet he manages a myriad of shading, he makes you listen to the words, he is Rodolfo and yes, his top notes have that freedom we don’t get from Björling. Ah!, you will say, but he uses a dose of falsetto (a.k.a. head voice) to help him out with all those honeyed high notes, Björling never cheated in this way. No, but neither did Carlo Bergonzi (on the second Tebaldi recording, under Serafin) and he too manages a myriad of shading, has you hanging onto the words and his top notes have a satisfying freedom too.

No, wherever you go it’s the same story, good singing, even beautiful singing, but two-dimensional. Oh, and the duets?! Well, of course I enjoyed the Pearl Fishers duet (the best of the five), but quite why it sold like the hot cakes it did beats me.

Still, fans (and those who just want to know what the fuss was about) will find the recordings lovingly transferred, and they include some that have never appeared on CD before, or even on LP in the case of the final two tracks.

Christopher Howell

See also review by Robert Farr

 


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