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Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893) Faust, opera in (4) 5 Acts (1859)
Jussi Björling (tenor) – Faust; Cesare Siepi (bass) – Méphistophélès; Frank Guarrera (baritone) – Valentin; Lawrence Davidson (bass) – Wagner; Anne Bollinger (soprano) – Siebel; Dorothy Kirsten (soprano) – Marguerite; Thelma Votipka (mezzo) – Martha
Orchestra and Chorus of the Metropolitan Opera/Fausto Cleva
Broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, N.Y. on 23rd December 1950
Appendix Songs and Arias sung by Jussi Björling

Franz SCHUBERT (1797 – 1828) Ständchen
Victor HERBERT (1859 – 1924) Princess Pat - Neapolitan Love Song
Orchestra/Donald Voorhees
Telephone Hour broadcast, N.Y., recorded on 4th April 1949
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924) La bohème, Che gelida manina; O soave fanciulla (with Anna-Lisa Björling (soprano))
Charles GOUNOD Roméo et Juliette, Ange adorable (with Anna-Lisa Björling)
Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra/Izler Solomon
Symphonies Under the Stars broadcast, Recorded at Hollywood Bowl on 23rd August 1949
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848) L’elisir d’amore, Una furtive lagrima
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945) Cavalleria rusticana, Mamma! ... Quel vino
Richard WAGNER (1813 – 1883) Lohengrin, In fernem Land
Jean SIBELIUS (1865 – 1957) Var det en dröm? Op. 37 No. 4; Svarta rosor Op. 36 No. 1; Säv, säv, susa Op. 36 No. 4
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sten Frykberg
Pre-recorded broadcast, recorded in Stockholm on 3rd October 1952
Archivist and Restoration Producer Ward Marston
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.111083 – 85 [3 CDs: 74:34 + 56:53 + 73:18]

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This 3 CD set contains some of the most glorious tenor singing ever recorded. Buy it!!!

I could have finished there, but since the editor almost certainly would have grumbled, I decided to develop my opinion at some greater length. For there are indeed comments en masse to be made and there are also some hang-ups, and let’s first have those done with.

The name Ward Marston as Restoration Producer is as always a guarantee that the quality of the sound is the best imaginable. And so it is here as well, but not even he can do much about scratchy strings, a generally thin orchestral sound and a substantial helping of extraneous noises: coughs (all right, it was recorded the day before Christmas Eve and the winter cold had begun in N.Y.), bumps, even some small talk. And of course stage movements are heard, some of them contributing to the atmosphere of being there at the old MET. Some of it is slightly irritating and in one scene there is a constant ticking noise that I wasn’t able to identify.

I wonder where the microphone was placed? The applause after the set numbers is retained and it is good to hear the enthusiasm from the audience. At the end of acts they are quickly faded out and instead we hear the announcer - I suppose it is Milton Cross who was the announcer from 1931, when the MET broadcasts began, until 1975 – with colourful comments.

The sound quality naturally affects the enjoyment of the orchestra and also the chorus suffers. As usual, however, when the music-making is outstanding one soon forgets the technical shortcomings and just leans back to enjoy the performance. From very early on it is obvious that this will be a thrilling evening. Fausto Cleva adopts generally lively tempos and generates a lot of energy and there are enthusiastic contributions from the chorus. I think Gounod’s sometimes over-sweet music fares well when de-sentimentalized. And Cleva knows when to draw out the phrases, e.g. in the Garden scene duet.

The Naxos booklet states that Faust is in four acts, while most reference books call it a five-acter. What is here called Act 1 scene 1, the meeting between Faust and Méphistophélès, is normally Act 1 and the next scene, starting with the Drinking chorus Vin ou bière, is Act 2. There are some cuts: the whole first scene of what is here called Act 3, Marguerite’s spinning-song and the scene with Siebel, is omitted and in the last act the Choeur des Feux Follets is gone. On the other hand the ballet music, or most of it, is reinstated in its righteous place in the Walpurgisnacht scene and it is played with such gusto that one soon forgets about the primitive sound. Valentin’s Avant de quitter ces lieux, in Act 1 scene 2, written for Sir Charles Santley, is of course included, but Faust’s drinking song in the last act is unfortunately omitted.

It is a great relief that the voices are so well caught and as soon as we hear Jussi Björling’s easily recognisable timbre (the first singing in the opera) we know that we are in for an unforgettable night at the opera. This was one of his favourite parts, but besides the cavatina, he never recorded anything from the opera, even if there were plans for a complete recording with Beecham. So much better then, that this document exists. Björling was in tremendous form that evening, he sings with such confidence and authority and pours out a steady stream of golden tone. The whole first scene is a real tour de force of great singing, since the young Cesare Siepi is almost on a par with Björling. When Faust approaches Marguerite at the end of Act 1, Ne permettez-vous pas (CD1 track 13) Björling sings so beautifully and the words je t’aime! (I love you!) are invested with such glow that even a piece of rock from the Scandinavian Mountain Range would melt. The Cavatina (CD1 track 17) is gloriously sung with refulgent tone and a perfect high C, but one misses some of the more lyrical qualities in this aria. On the other hand we get those aplenty in the Garden scene duet (CD2 track 4 and 5) where Ô nuit d’amour must be unsurpassed. And listen to Divine purete (track 6 at 3:12) – can anyone regard this as "cool" singing? In the Prison scene duet Mon Coeur est pénétré d’épouvante! (CD3 track 9) is really incandescent. I can only repeat the first sentence of this review: "... some of the most glorious tenor singing ever recorded".

And Björling isn’t the only glorious singer here. I have already briefly mentioned Cesare Siepi, 27 years of age but with an authority and a palette of colours and histrionic skill (including a really devilish laughter) that one thought needed at least another ten years to acquire. His voice, a true, black, velvety bass, can be seductive and menacing, elegant and crude, oily and straight-forward. Le veau d’or (CD1 track 9) is delivered at a rousing tempo, while his Il était temps (CD2 track 3) shows his outstanding legato and the serenade (CD2 track 10) is sung with melting tone and elegance; the first laughter doesn’t sound very diabolic, but the final outburst clearly shows where he belongs. A great portrait of Méphistophélès to set beside Chaliapin’s and Christoff’s assumptions but Siepi is more elegant than either of them.

The third main character, Marguerite, is here sung by the American soprano Dorothy Kirsten, who seems to be rather under-represented on record. To judge from this hearing she should have had more recording opportunities. She hasn’t quite the innocent charm and the silken pianissimo singing of Victoria de los Angeles, possibly the best Marguerite on disc, but she has still a fine voice, slightly fluttery but with a good ring and she is a fine actor. The song about the King of Thulé and the Jewel song are excellently done, a view which the audience at the MET seems to share. The Church scene finds her in slightly less steady voice but in the concluding prison scene she is back on form again.

Of the other soloists Frank Guarrera, most well-known perhaps for his Ford in Toscanini’s recording of Falstaff, has steady fine tone in Avant de quitter ces lieux (CD1 track 8). His French is better than the others’, but he lacks the French elegance, he pushes too much and would probably feel more at home in verismo. His death scene is even more forceful. The rest of the cast consists of acceptable comprimario singers.

The main reason for acquiring the set is the singing of the three main characters and, first and foremost Jussi Björling. The value of the discs is further enhanced by the substantial appendix, containing more than 40 minutes of equally glorious singing from the great tenor as in the opera. There are excerpts from three occasions, first the Telephone Hour, where he sings Schubert’s Ständchen very operatically but gloriously. Compared to Gigli recording Björling still conveys something of the Lied character – and he sings it in German. Victor Herbert’s Neapolitan Love Song, where he challenges and outsings Mario Lanza, is a reminder of his early recording career in the 1930s when he recorded quite a lot of popular songs, much of them under the pseudonym Erik Odde – recordings that are due for release on Naxos, at least in Sweden. Whether they can be of general interest for an international public, sung in Swedish, is another matter. The recording is very acceptable, while the Hollywood Bowl recordings are more distant. He sings however a finely nuanced Che gelida manina with a brilliant high C and a lovely pianissimo ending. In the love duet he is partnered by his wife Anna-Lisa, who was a good singer too, which can be heard here, but she chose to have a very limited career of her own and instead take care of the children. Her Mimi is very well sung and she also takes part (uncredited) in the Madrigal from Roméo et Juliette, which is announced by Jussi. The remaining items, recorded in a studio with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in October 1952 and broadcast on Boxing Day the same year, offer much better sound. Una furtiva lagrima is better sung than either of his official recordings and the aria from Cavalleria rusticana shows him deeply involved with tremendous intensity. "Cool" singer? Bad actor? Just listen to this track and you’ll be converted. His singing In fernem Land from Lohengrin may come as a surprise to many listeners, but Björling would certainly have been a wonderful Lohengrin on stage and on records. Among the many plans for further recording projects that never came to being, was actually Lohengrin. The aria is sung here in Swedish, sensitively, authoritatively with refulgent tone and excellent diction. He sang this aria at his very last concert, just weeks before his untimely death, luckily recorded and later issued by RCA. At the same concert he also sang two of the three Sibelius songs recorded here, Svarta rosor and Säv, säv, susa, two favourite songs of his, recorded several times. They are on the recently issued song recital on Naxos. The first of them, Var det en dröm?, suddenly finds him more recessed, almost as if he were singing from behind the orchestra while the harp is centre-stage. In Svarta rosor (Black roses) the harp is still prominent but Björling is closer to the microphone. This balance problem apart he sings wonderfully with Sten Frykberg providing fine accompaniments.

This appendix alone is worth the price of the whole set. And since the opera has so much to offer you won’t regret the purchase. You don’t get a libretto but Keith Anderson’s detailed synopsis is a good substitute and Malcolm Walker gives interesting information about the opera and the singers.
Buy it!

Göran Forsling

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