In the seventh volume of the Naxos Björling series we meet the
tenor in Swedish songs, recorded between 1929 (when he was not
yet 19!) and 1953, his last 78 rpm recordings. The songs can be
roughly divided in two categories: nationalist or patriotic songs
and songs that pay tribute to the beauty of nature which also
is a kind of nationalism. Some of the songs are by important composers
with at least some international reputation, like Alfvén, Peterson-Berger
and Stenhammar, others by composers with a standing mainly within
Sweden – and there are also songs by more or less musical amateurs.
This was in fact the repertoire through which Jussi Björling reached
a popularity among ‘common’ people in his native country that
is unparalleled. He often included them in his recital programmes,
primarily as encores, some of them also in his international programmes.
The songs are presented
chronologically, which gives the listener an opportunity to
follow his development. It is quite stunning to hear the first
two songs, recorded just before Christmas 1929, a few weeks
before his nineteenth birthday. All the characteristics are
there: the smooth, even tone, the musical phrasing, the breath
control and knowing that this is in fact a teenage boy it is
easy to disregard from some uncertainly, from the weak lower
notes and the somewhat stiff delivery of the text. It should
be noted that Emil Sjögren, who wrote I drömmen du är mig
nära, was the first important composer of art songs in Sweden.
At the next session, less than a year later, the voice is already
fuller, the attack more vital. The two songs by Peterson-Berger
remained in his repertoire and were recorded again in 1957,
coupled on an EP with Stenhammar’s Sverige, Sjöberg’s
Tonerna and Althén’s Land du välsignade – all
of them heard on early recordings here. The EP was my very first
gramophone record and being for a while the one and only I played
it almost continuously. The orchestra sounds immensely better
than on these early recordings and it is hard to believe that
27 years separate the Peterson-Berger recordings. The mature
Björling, 47 at the time, had greater authority and greater
intensity but the voice is in the main the same – slightly darker
in the late 1950s. When he set down Tonerna, one of his
favourite songs, for the first time in 1936 he was a fully fledged
tenor on the threshold to an international career and he ends
the song on a wonderful diminuendo. He does the same 21 years
later and both readings should be unsurpassed, were it not for
the fact that in 1952 he recorded the song with piano – issued
on the LP “Jussi Björling in Song” and that recording is the
most masterly ever of any song by any singer. Strong words,
I know but I won’t withdraw from them an iota. That LP, by the
way, was issued by Naxos about four years ago, with some earlier
Lieder recordings added for good measure (see review).
If he is at his
lyrical best in Tonerna he is both powerfully brilliant
and weakly lyrical in Ack Värmeland du sköna. This folksong
from the province of Värmland in Western Sweden has become internationally
famous, at least among jazz diggers, after Stan Getz heard it
and recorded it, but then entitled Dear old Stockholm.
There is also some melodic likeness with the main theme
in Smetana’s Moldau, and since Smetana worked for several
years in Gothenburg he may have heard the song and assimilated
the tune – but I doubt he heard it sung as well as Jussi Björling.
The only non-Swedish composer here is Danish Mogens Schrader,
whose Sommarnatt is a fine vehicle for Jussi’s flexible
voice, sung here with infallible legato and rounded off with
a glorious high C.
sometimes regarded as the second national anthem of Sweden,
was originally conceived for mixed choir as part of the cantata
Ett folk. The lyrics are by Nobel Prize winner Verner
von Heidenstam. As a choral piece it is enormous gripping –
I have sung it on numerous occasions – but also as a solo song
Jussi Björling catches all the warmth and nobility.
Another song normally
heard by male choirs is Sjungom studentens lyckliga dar.
It was composed by a member of the Royal Family, the second
son of King Oscar I. Prince Gustaf died very young but some
of his music is still performed and this jolly song for students
leaving high school is known by most Swedes. It is sung here
by a male quartet and Jussi comes in midway through the song.
But it is of special interest since this was the song with which
he began his career at the age of four, singing it together
with his brothers.
Hugo Alfvén wrote
a number of excellent songs, none better than Skogen sover,
which Björling sings with superb legato. This song and Eklöf’s
Morgon were recorded with piano accompaniment in the
US in 1940 and unlike the rest of the songs here they were issued
on HMV’s international DB series. Gustaf Nordqvist was a prolific
song composer and Till havs is no doubt the best known,
primarily through Jussi. It is a brilliant showpiece while P-B’s
Jungfrun under lind is one of the most beautiful love
songs in Swedish. The two songs by Sven Salén – once the winner
of an Olympic bronze medal in sailing and founder of one of
Sweden’s largest shipping companies – were not in Jussi’s recital
repertoire but he recorded them specifically for the benefit
of a charity organization. The pompous Sången till havet
shows the old sailor’s fascination for the sea while the other
song is a gentle and heartfelt painting of Swedish summer nights.
Having lived with
these songs for most of my life they are today second nature
but I am sure also non-Scandinavians will be able to enjoy them.
After all I loved Italian songs long before I ever visited that
country. And – hearing Jussi Björling in whatever repertoire
is always a treat. The audio restoration engineer Stefan Lindström
has been ‘extremely economical with noise reduction’ to preserve
as much as possible of Björling’s unique timbre. And Harald
Henrysson’s has as always poured from his cornucopia of knowledge
for the tremendously informative and well written notes. Another
disc to treasure in this invaluable series.