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Recordings of the Month


From Ocean’s Floor


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CD: Swedish Music Shop

Rolf Björling (tenor)
see end of review for details
rec. 1964-81
BLUEBELL ABCD111 [76:08]
Experience Classicsonline

Everybody knows Jussi Björling, the eminent Swedish tenor, who died tragically before his 50th birthday but became a legend in his lifetime. During the almost fifty years that have passed since then his reputation has grown and grown and today he is an icon on a par with Caruso and Gigli. Many listeners who have read his biography may recollect that his father was also a singer as were two of Jussi’s brothers, tenors all, and that Gösta had quite a career at the Stockholm opera. Jussi’s son Lars and his daughter Ann-Charlotte have also had singing careers but it may come as a surprise to some that he had a son - illegal as it was in those days - born as early as 1928 when Jussi was still a teenager. Rolf studied in Sweden and the US but didn’t embark on a singing career until 1960. His first operatic role was as Pinkerton in Gothenburg in 1962 when he was already thirty-four. He worked for some time in Oslo and for two years at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin. From 1967 until his official retirement in 1985 he was a leading tenor at the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm. His greatest role there was as Manrico in Il trovatore and the first half hour of this disc gives us excerpts from the premiere in 1972, broadcast by Swedish Radio. I didn’t see the premiere but I went to one of the following performances with a slightly different cast and was deeply impressed. I had heard Rolf on several occasions before and good though he had been then I wasn’t prepared for this powerful and heroic assumption of the role. Excerpts were recorded commercially at the time by the since long defunct label Lyssna but here we get much more of Manrico’s role.

Rolf Björling had a voice timbre reminiscent of his father’s but his tone was darker and technically he was - or became with advancing years - more of the tenore robusto kind. He wasn’t always very subtle but he could be as some of the excerpts on this disc demonstrate. Gradually a beat in the voice developed, notable mainly on sustained notes in the upper reaches. The reason for this was no doubt that he often tended to press his voice more than was healthy for it and he assumed heavier roles than his father, even singing Otello. A significant feature of his singing was a slightly nasal quality, which can be heard on the opening track on this disc. By and large though these excerpts from Il trovatore show him in the best possible light. Mal reggendo is sung with fine legato and nuance, Ah, si, ben mio is beautifully vocalised and his Di quella pira has power and gusto - momentarily his voice could be mistaken for his father’s. His phrases in the Miserere are distantly recorded but the finale is superb with free ringing tone. And he is well supported by his female partners. Barbro Ericson was for many years a pillar of strength in the Royal Opera’s ensemble. Her voice more contralto than mezzo, which is ideal for Azucena’s role, and Margareta Hallin had few superiors in the world during her heyday. Her singing in the Miserere is glorious and the final scene with Manrico is even better. Rolf Jupither’s compact baritone is also briefly heard. Generally I prefer Björling’s singing here to the studio recording on Lyssna, which is slightly heavier and more unwieldy.

1972 was a good year for Rolf Björling. The tomb scene from Aida was also recorded that year and practically the only drawback is that it is sung in Swedish. Non-Swedish readers should however be aware of the fact that the Swedish language is also very rich on vowels, which facilitates legato singing. Compared to his heroic Manrico, his Radames is lyrical and restrained and throughout the scene Björling radiates warmth. His Aida is Gunilla af Malmborg, who was a splendid lirico-spinto soprano. This same year I heard her as a very good Sieglinde in Die Walküre. She sang opposite Helge Brilioth’s Siegmund and Kim Borg’s Hunding and with veteran Sigurd Björling as Wotan. Hers is a rather defiant Aida, brilliant but unwilling to scale down to Björling’s inward singing so that in their unison singing she tends to overshadow him.

The Rigoletto aria, recorded five years later, finds Björling in less than sensitive mood, lacking the elegance and noblesse - which is an external attribute as opposed to nobility, which is an inner quality - of a true Duke of Mantua. This was unfortunately a style of unsubtle singing that he too often indulged in. The applause is only dutifully polite.

As Calaf he is passable in Non piangere, Liù, which is cut off rather abruptly, while Nessun dorma is far better. José Carreras was no better in his late recording.

A jump back in time to La bohème in Gothenburg 1964, two years after his operatic debut there, reveals a smoother, more lyrical voice and very sensitive singing. It is more dimly recorded than the Stockholm excerpts but fully acceptable, though the orchestra tends to mask some of his singing. His high C in Che gelida manina rings out well though and more freely than it did when I heard him in the role in the 1970s. The pianissimo end is fine.

His singing in the quartet from the end of act III is possibly the closest in voice quality he came to his father. Here we also meet the delectable Rut Jacobson as Mimi and this reminds me that the two of them recorded an LP with Puccini arias and duets at the time. It would be nice to see it reissued.

The arias from Pagliacci are instructive in more than one way. Recorded in 1981 they show him relatively close to the end of his career - though he continued singing as a freelance long after his farewell to the Stockholm Opera. His voice has darkened further since the Trovatore and Rigoletto excerpts, there is more strain and the beat, notable also in 1972, is more pronounced. Little subtlety remains but the intensity is undiminished. The final scene, with Canio unfortunately too far from the microphone, finds him in better voice than Vesti la giubba - a worthy example of the art of Rolf Björling as we old-timers remember him, with warts and all. Britt Marie Aruhn’s perky Nedda is a further attraction.

It is unfair but unavoidable to compare Rolf Björling with his great father but in his best moments - and there are quite a few of them on this disc - he could stand comparison with many a leading tenor of his day. He was uneven, not always very tasteful - but thrilling even so. This is a fine tribute to his memory.

Göran Forsling

1. Three of the participating artists on this disc are documented on discs of their own in Bluebell’s “Great Swedish Singers” series:
- Barbro Ericson, Margareta Hallin (review)
- Rut Jacobson (review)

2. Rolf Björling’s son Raymond is also a professional tenor.

Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
Il trovatore, highlights
Act I
1. Non son tuo figlio? [2:13]
2. Mal reggendo [2:56]
3. L’usato messo Ruiz invia [1:28]
4. Perigliarti ancor languente [2:02]
5. Ah, si, ben mio [3:28]
6. L’onda de’ suoni mistici [1:46]
7. Di quella pira [2:15]
Act IV
8. Miserere [4:56]
9. Si, la stanchezza [3:19]
10. Che! Non m’inganno! [8:41]
Act IV
11. La fatal pietra [11:31]
Act II
12. Ella mi fu rapita … Parmi veder le lagrime [5:01]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 - 1924)
Act I
13. Non piangere, Liù [2:08]
14. Nessun dorma [2:55]
La bohème
Act I
15. Che gelida manina [4:53]
16. Dunque è proprio finita! [5:37]
Ruggiero LEONCAVALLO (1858 - 1919)
Act I
17. Vesti la giubba [3:47]
Act II
18. No, Pagliaccio non son [6:02]
Rolf Björling (tenor)
Trovatore: Margareta Hallin (soprano), Barbro Ericson (mezzo), Rolf Rupither (baritone), Tord Slättegård (tenor), John-Erik Jacobsson (tenor); Aida: Gunilla af Malmborg (soprano), Edith Thallaug (mezzo); Turandot: Dorrit Kleimert (soprano), Bengt Rundgren (bass); Bohème: Rut Jacobson (soprano), Claes Jacobsson (baritone), Berith Bohm (soprano); Pagliacci: Britt Marie Aruhn (soprano), Rold Jupither (baritone), Tord Wallström (baritone), Lars Magnusson (tenor); Stora Teatern Orchestra, Gothenburg/Ino Savini (15, 16); Royal Orchestra and Royal Opera Chorus, Stockholm/Carlo Felice Cillario (1-10, 12) Elyakum Shapirra (11), Silvio Varviso (13, 14), Kjell Ingebretsen (17, 18)
rec. Royal Opera House, Stockholm 21 January 1972 (1-10), 1972 (11), 3 December 1977 (12), 8 March 1969 (13, 14); Stora Teatern Gothenburg, 10 September 1964 (15, 16); Kulturhuset, Stockholm, 9 September 1981




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