Björker may be a completely unfamiliar name, not only to the
international public but also, I am afraid, to a majority of
present day Swedish opera-goers.
on earth haven’t I heard about this man before?” I can imagine
more than one reader of this review exclaiming, having bought
this Bluebell issue and, preferably, having played In diesen
heil’gen Hallen from Die Zauberflöte (tr. 2). “This
is a magnificent voice! A true basso cantante, the tone even
from a ringing top C sharp down to a pitch-black sepulchral
final E. It is a large voice, warm, noble, beautiful, a quick
vibrato that is no defect, just a characteristic. My God! He
should have been a world star!”
one’s memory to find comparable voices, names like Kurt Moll
or Martti Talvela may pop up; from further back Pinza’s roundness
of tone and warmth paired with Kipnis’s power and incisiveness
might be a sound description. Some may even remember the gigantic
Norwegian Ivar Andrésen, and then we come close to the mark,
since he was one of Björker’s two main vocal teachers.
Björker (1900–1962) was a mainstay at the Stockholm opera from
his debut in November 1927 as the Grandfather in Rangström’s
Kronbruden, a role that was sung five years earlier by
his teacher Andrésen at the Stockholm premiere of the work.
Björker’s reading of the role can be heard on this disc in a
recording from 1959, the year before his retirement. Comparing
the earliest recordings here, from 1934, with what he sounded
like 25 years later there is very little difference. The voice
is just as sonorous and warm, no audible scratches on the surface;
it may have dried out a little, but that’s it. He preserved
his glorious instrument practically intact during his long career.
Listening through the whole disc and marvelling at what one
hears the question arises again: Why didn’t he become a world-star,
like his famous teacher? The answer is possibly - even though
I can’t find written testimony to this – that he did not want
world fame. He never appeared abroad, apart from on the Royal
Opera’s tours in Scandinavia and at Edinburgh. Nor did he make
many commercial recordings. What exists comes to us via a number
of recordings from Swedish Radio, which are the main source
for Bluebell’s wholly admirable “Great Swedish Singers” series.
admired his Sarastro – the part could have been created with
Björker’s voice in mind – we also meet him as a noble but formidable
Commendatore in the final scene of Don Giovanni, where
Sigurd Björling is a gloriously defiant Don. These Mozart excerpts
were recorded in the early 1940s, when he was at the height
of his powers. However, as I have already intimated and as we
shall see if we jump back and forth in time, this height lasted
practically unimpaired throughout his career. He was a masterly
Wagnerian bass – Birgit Nilsson regarded him as the greatest
in her experience – and his Landgrave in Tannhäuser is
regal – the comparison with Andrésen is apt. This was recorded
in 1957; jumping backwards 18 years we hear his noble Pogner
in Die Meistersinger and we listen closely: is his voice
production a little easier? Possibly a notch, but only a small
notch. Another five years backwards and the scratchy recording
from 1934 tells us the age. As Padre Guardiano in La forza
del destino his voice is more mellow to begin with, and
so it should; but then he is as mighty as any other bass in
memory. Does he even challenge Pinza in his legendary recording
with Rosa Ponselle? It might be irreverent to say so, but beyond
the bacon frying and the variable levels we hear the same fullness,
the same nobility. Yes, nobility is the noun that constantly
comes to mind. It should be mentioned, though, that he also
encompassed nasty characters like Hunding and Hagen with the
same eloquence. He isn’t partnered by Rosa Ponselle but we hear
a finely nuanced Leonora from Brita Herzberg, who was a star
at the Royal Opera for more than thirty years, not least in
Wagner roles. She and her husband Einar Beyron were the dream
couple of Tristan und Isolde, and their daughter Catarina
Ligendza was an international star in the same repertoire some
Issay Dobrowen conducting, Björker sings a deeply-felt Confutatis
maledictis from Verdi’s Requiem, recorded in 1950.
Such warmth! The reference to Pinza is again close at hand.
This is sung in the original Latin; all the other arias are
sung in Swedish, as was the rule at the time. It has also been
Bluebell’s policy with this series to include something from
the world of Swedish opera, which makes them even more valuable.
Ture Rangström may be known mainly as a composer of some very
fine songs, often settings of Bo Bergman, but he was also fascinated
by August Strindberg: his first symphony. from 1914, is entitled
“August Strindberg in Memoriam” and the opera Kronbruden
(1915–16) is not only based on Strindberg’s play but is in fact
a setting, word for word, of Strindberg’s text – or rather the
first four acts; the last two acts were cut with the author’s
consent. Rangström met Strindberg on several occasions in 1909
and discussed the possibility of an opera. The finished score
was sent to the Stockholm Opera in early 1917. It was two years
before he received an answer and then Harald André, manager
of the opera, suggested that it would have to wait a couple
of years. In the meantime Rangström, with his colleague Atterberg
as mediator, had met Max von Schillings from the Stuttgart Opera,
who within a couple of months accepted it for performance. Thus
the world premiere took place in Stuttgart on 21 October 1919.
It was another three years before it finally was staged in Stockholm.
There are few separate numbers in the opera, no arias; the vocal
parts are mainly declamatory and we can admire Björker’s exemplary
enunciation of the text.
Atterberg may be a better known quantity as composer, at least
to record collectors, who today can acquire his total symphonic
output in excellent recordings (see Rob Barnett’s review).
He was also an avid producer of operas and Björker took part
in four of Atterberg’s world premieres. Best known is Fanal,
most of all since Jussi Björling sang Martin Skarp at the premiere
and also recorded his aria I männer over lag och rätt commercially.
The premiere performance was also recorded, at least in parts.
It is wonderful to hear Björker’s warm and noble voice in the
Duke’s part. It would be great if some enterprising company
– hint, CPO! – recorded at least highlights from this opera.
the excerpt from Roméo et Juliette Björker is a tender-hearted
Frère Laurent. As the lovers we hear Jussi Björling and his
frequent partner Hjördis Schymberg, who recently celebrated
her 98th birthday and reportedly sang to her own
piano accompaniment at the reception!
final tracks are from the first act of Brazilian Carlos Gomes’s
partly folk-inspired opera Il Guarany, which was staged
in Stockholm in May 1945. Björker is as sonorous and warm as
expected and he is surrounded by a number of leading singers.
Among them is a glorious Sigurd Björling and – in the aria Gentile
di cuore – the Belgian soprano Henriette Guermant, who sang
in Stockholm 1940–1958 and is little represented on record.
This seems to be her first appearance on CD, which is a shame,
since hers was an agile and glittering lyrical voice of the
the sound is variable, recorded over such a long period, but
even the oldest excerpts are more than acceptable. All in all
this disc offers such magnificent bass singing that it should
be in every respectable vocal collection.
reviews in the series “Great Swedish Singers” on Bluebell: