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Birgit Nilsson at the churches of St. Jacob and Gustav Vasa
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1779-1827) Die Ehre Gottes aus der Natur; Josef ERIKSSON (1872-1957) Stora och underbara äro dina verk; Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)/Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893) Ave Maria; Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) Den store, hvide flok; César FRANCK (1822-1890) Panis angelicus; Charles GOUNOD Parce Domine (Repentir); Albert RUNBÄCK  (1894-1974) Frid; Adolphe ADAM (1803-1856) O holy night; Stephen ADAMS (1844-1913) The holy city; John Henry HOPKINS Jr. (?) We three kings of Orient; Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY  (1809-1847) Hark! The herald angels sing; Lowell MASON (1792-1872) Joy to the world; George Frederic HANDEL (1685-1759) Tochter Sion, freue dich; Franz GRUBER (1787-1863) Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht; Johann Sebastian BACH/Charles GOUNOD Ave Maria; César FRANCK (1822-1897) Panis angelicus; ; Adolphe ADAM O Helga natt; Franz GRUBER Stilla natt; Prince Gustaf (1827-1852) I rosens doft
Birgit Nilsson (soprano)
Anders Bondeman (organ)(tracks 1-14), Åke Olofsson (cello)(tracks 5; 6), Anna Stångberg (harp)(track 5), St. Jacob’s Youth Choir/Stefan Sköld (tracks 11, 13, 14), Åke Levén (organ) (tracks 15-18), Arnold Östman (piano)(track 19)
Recorded at St. Jacob’s Church, Stockholm, 14-17 February, 1977 (tracks 1-14), at Gustav Vasa Church, Stockholm, 3 August, 1963 (tracks 15-18), Swedish Radio, Studio 3, Stockholm, 29 December 1975 (track 19)
SWEDISH SOCIETY DISCOFIL SCD 1137 [69:08]


As expected the death of Birgit Nilsson in December 2005 unleashed a stream of recording s excavated from the archives. In many cases this has been a good thing. After all Ms Nilsson’s singing is often comparable to the eighth wonder of the world. However not all is gold and much of the content of the present disc is definitely of slighter metallic value.
 
The material comes from three different sources. The first 14 tracks are from an LP, recorded in 1977 at St. Jacob’s Church-visitors to Stockholm may know the red building just across the street from the Royal Opera House. The LP is transferred in its entirety. The next four are from an EP recorded in 1963 at the Gustav Vasa Church at Odenplan in central Stockholm. The last track, recorded in 1975, was Birgit Nilsson’s contribution to an LP entitled Hovsångare sjunger Bernadottesånger (Court Singers sing songs by the Royal Bernadotte family).
 
In 1977-the date of the LP-Birgit Nilsson was already 59 and time had mercilessly caught up with the once spotless voice. Famous in her heyday for her steadiness, almost straight tone and near-perfect intonation she here sounds sorely strained, vibrato-laden, scooping up to notes. Her pianissimos are frail and shaky. In some songs, notably Albert Runbäck’s Frid (Peace) her intonation is so approximate that it is hard to judge what notes she is aiming at.
 
My admiration for Birgit Nilsson’s singing is second to none, as I have frequently pointed out on this site, but this disc gave me very little pleasure and large portions of it are merely painful. My wife, listening in the adjacent room, asked after a short while: “Is it Mrs. Miller?” Of course the underlying intentions are of the best and listening carefully one can at once hear that La Nilsson knows exactly what she wants; it is the voice that fails. The readings are carefully thought through with much sensitive phrasing. Occasionally she shows her mettle and her famous laser-beam tone shines through the peal of the organ as in bygone days, but to my mind at least these tracks should have remained in the archives of Swedish Society.
 
Are there no extenuating circumstances? Anders Bondeman is an excellent organist. Åke Olofsson plays a very beautiful cello solo in Panis angelicus and the St. Jacob’s Youth Choir, appearing in a few songs, are clear-voiced and sweet-sounding with angelic high sopranos. The best track, among the fourteen, is Stille Nacht, with the choir in the background and Birgit Nilsson, scaling down her voice properly and being comparatively steady.
 
The four titles from 1963 show her in much better shape, sounding more like the “real” Birgit, but even here there is an uncharacteristic vibrato creeping in and also some scooping. All four of the songs were also recorded in 1977, although in 1963 she sang Adam and Gruber in Swedish. The larger and more reverberant acoustics of the Gustav Vasa Church make her sing them slower than at St. Jacob, which means that Silent Night becomes so drawn out that it should be renamed Eternal Night. Anyway she sings it with a good deal of warmth, and O Holy Night, the real showpiece among Christmas Songs, is the only track on the whole disc against which I placed exclamation marks in my notes.
 
The remaining item, Rosens doft (The fragrance of the rose) is quite a nice song. Birgit Nilsson’s singing is much more confident and nuanced than two years later, but the piano part is four-square and not even the excellent Arnold Östman can do much about that. Prince Gustaf, who died young, was second son of King Oscar I. He also composed a couple of songs for male quartet and these are still frequently sung.
 
All in all this is a disappointing issue. For the best of Birgit Nilsson one has to look elsewhere. Why not the Bluebell disc with recordings from Swedish Radio’s archives (see review)?
 
Göran Forsling
 

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