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Robert Merrill & Jussi Björling - Operatic Arias and Duets
rec. 1949-51
NIMBUS NI 7945 [78:31]

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Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)

Faust
1. Salut! Demeure chaste et pure² [5:01]
Georges BIZET (1837 – 1875)

Les Pecheurs de perles
2. Au fond du temple saint ¹² [4:40]
Carmen
3. La fleur que tu m’avais jetée² [4:08]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791 – 1864)
L’Africaine
4. O Paradiso!² [3:34]
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901)

Don Carlo
5. Io l’ho perduta!¹² [10:30]
Rigoletto
6. Cortigiani, vil razza dannata¹ [4:26]
Il trovatore
7. Il balen del suo sorriso¹ [3:14]
La forza del destino
8. Solenne in quest’ora¹² [4:15]
Un ballo in maschera
9. Eri tu¹ [4:15]
Otello
10. Credo in un Dio crudel¹ [4:45]
11. Si, pel ciel¹² [4:29]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945)

Cavalleria rusticana
12. Il cavallo scalpita¹ [2:44]
13. Mama, quell vino è generoso² [3:58]
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1858 – 1919)

Pagliacci
14. Si può? Si Può?¹ [4:57]
15. Vesti la giubba² [4:00]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)

La bohème
16. Che gelida manina² [5:11]
17. O mimi, tu più non torni¹² [4:14]
Jussi Björling (tenor)², Robert Merrill (baritone)¹, RCA Victor Orchestra/Renato Cellini (1, 2, 4, 5, 8, 11, 15, 16, 17); Arthur Fiedler (6, 7, 9, 10, 12, 14); Swedish Radio Orchestra/Nils Grevillius (3; 13)
rec. New York, November 1949 (6, 7, 9, 10 12, 14); November 1950 (5); January 1951 (2, 8, 11, 16, 17); March 1951 (1, 4, 15); Stockholm, September 1950 (3, 13)
NIMBUS NI 7945 [78:31]

There are few recordings of the same vintage – or indeed from any period of recorded history – that have been so frequently issued and reissued than the five legendary duets that Björling and Merrill set down in 1950-51. One can wonder if there is one single lover of great singing that doesn’t have a copy. I hope that there is still a market and that new generations will be able to discover gems from earlier times. These duets are among the most luminous of all. Björling and Merrill took part in the premiere of the new production of Don Carlo at the Metropolitan Opera on 6 November 1950, a performance that was televised. Less than a week later the same cast appeared in a radio broadcast, from which there exist excerpts issued on record. On 30 November RCA Victor and HMV in a joint effort recorded the long duet in a New York studio with Renato Cellini conducting. It was issued in Europe on HMV DB 21622 (78 rpm) and in the US on a 45 rpm disc (ERB-7027) and after that probably everyone – with the possible exception of Harald Henrysson, the curator of the Jussi Björling Museum – has lost count of the number of issues. Just a month later they were back in the studio and recorded four more duets, including the one from The Pearl Fishers, which has been one the most requested recordings ever since.

What is the secret of their popularity? The music of course, but with so many other recordings to choose from this is hardly the main reason. The quality of the recordings is no more than adequate for the period and the playing of the studio orchestra is professional but no more so than on other recordings. But the singing is special. Not only do the two voices blend so well, they are also clearly contrasted, which is especially obvious in Solenne in quest’ora from La forza del destino. Björling, who never sang Forza on stage, opens with hushed lyrical singing, far removed from some world-famous singers who try to break the sound-barrier, and then comes Merrill, who sang his role, he even recorded it with Thomas Schippers in the 1960s, and attacks the music with considerably more power. They recorded the Bohème duet a few years later in the complete recording with Beecham, who perhaps is more individual but whose slow tempo also makes it slightly turgid. Cellini has a more natural flow. Maybe the most interesting item is the Otello duet. The title role is the pinnacle for an Italianate tenor and Björling wanted to sing it but he wished to wait some years until his voice had darkened. It did, which can be heard on his later recordings, but before he was ready for the role death intervened, a fate that also fell upon Caruso a generation earlier. Neither of them reached the age of fifty. That Björling had the measure for some aspects of the role as early as 1951 is obvious from this duet, which actually is one of the more strenuous scenes in the opera. Merrill had recorded Iago’s Credo a year earlier – included here – and he returned to the aria for a later recital, recorded in Rome in 1956 in connection with the complete Rigoletto, where both singers participated.

Even in 1949 Merrill’s voice was one of the most beautiful and brilliant, surpassing even contemporaries like Warren, Gobbi and Bastianini, though falling short on interpretative depth. One can compare in detail his early readings with those from the mid-fifties and again – in Trovatore and Rigoletto – with complete recordings from the early sixties. The voice has not aged all that much but neither have the readings. He is no cipher dramatically but his readings are of the all-purpose kind that could without great loss be interchangeable between operas. Even so it is a special pleasure to listen to him for the supreme singing and these recordings with Arthur Fiedler are relative rarities in the reissue catalogues and therefore especially welcome.

This also goes for Björling’s recordings of roughly the same period. We find his aria recordings from the late thirties and early forties on sundry labels but these sides – there are also arias from Aida and La Gioconda from the same session as Che gelida manina and the two Tosca arias recorded with Grevillius at a session the week before the Carmen and Cavalleria arias – have been largely forgotten. This is a pity since they show Björling at the absolute peak of his powers, having honed them on numerous performances and recitals while still with the voice in mint condition.

If you haven’t got the duets, by all means buy the disc for them – they have rarely been challenged and never surpassed> however even if you do have them in threefold versions this disc remains a gem for the sake of the arias.

Göran Forsling

 

 

 

 


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