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Leon Björker – Bass
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791) Die Zauberflöte
1. Herr, ich bin zwar Verbrecherin [6:31]
2. O Isis und Osiris [3:17]
3. In diesen heil’gen Hallen [4:08] Don Giovanni
4. Don Giovanni, a cenar teco [6:43]
Richard WAGNER (1813–1883) Tannhäuser
5. Gar viel und schön ward hier in dieser Halle [4:45]
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
6. Nicht doch, Ihr Meister [4:02]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813–1901) La forza del destino
7. Il santo nome di Dio Signore [7:26] Requiem
8. Confutatis maledictis [4:56]
Ture RANGSTRÖM (1884–1947)
Kronbruden (The Crown Bride)
9. Stig Mattsson, jag har kallat på dig [4:41]
Kurt ATTERBERG (1887–1974) Fanal
10. Vart sjönk vårt människovärde hän [3:12]
Charles GOUNOD (1818–1893) Roméo et Juliette
11. Dieu qui fis l’homme [6:10]
Carlos GOMES (1836–1896) Il Guarany
12. Alfin giungemmo all’ospitale tetto [2:22]
13. Che siate I benvenuti [5:50]
14. Gentile di cuore [3:10]
15. Cecilia, esulta. Resto ai nostril lari–Salve possente Vergine [5:46]
Leon Björker (bass)
Helga Görlin (soprano), Simon Edwardsen (tenor), Einar Andersson (tenor) (tr. 1); Sigurd Björling (baritone), Folke Jonsson (bass) (tr. 4); Conny Molin (baritone) (tr. 6); Brita Herzberg (soprano) (tr. 7); Jussi Björling (tenor), Hjördis Schymberg (soprano), Göta Allard (soprano) (tr. 11); Copnny Söderström (tenor), Henriette Guermant (soprano), Sigurd Björling (baritone), Arne Ohlson (tenor), Gösta Björling (tenor), Georg Svedenbrant (baritone) (tr. 12-15); Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus/Issay Dobrowen (tr. 8); Royal Orchestra (and Chorus)/Herbert Sandberg; Nils Grevillius; Sixten Ehrling; Leo Blech
rec. Concert Hall, Stockholm (tr. 8), Royal Opera House, Stockholm, 1934–1959
BLUEBELL ABCD 102 [74:12]

 


Leon 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.

“Why 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!”

Searching 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.

Leon 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.

Having 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 decades ago.

With 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.

Kurt 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.

In 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!

The 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 first order.

Naturally 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.

Göran Forsling 

Earlier reviews in the series “Great Swedish Singers” on Bluebell:

Margareta Hallin
Kjerstin Dellert
Barbro Ericson
Elisabeth Söderström
Erik Saedén
Gösta Winbergh
Ingvar Wixell
Nicolai Gedda
Kerstin Meyer


 


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