These two books approach tenor Jussi Björling in widely
divergent ways. Stephen Hastings has written a book devoted
to his recorded legacy, exhaustive and analytical. Yrsa Stenius
is a journalist whose book was first published in 2002 and now
appears here in this limited edition printed edition in English
Hastings has been the Milan correspondent of Opera News
for over two decades and editor in chief of the Italian periodical
Musica for 12 years. Both his experience of the surviving
discography and the clarity with which he approaches it are
remarkable. In terms of the vocal art his book is in the lineage
of John Steane’s The Grand Tradition, Michael Scott’s
The Record of Singing and Paul Jackson’s painstaking
analyses of Metropolitan opera broadcasts. The difference of
course is that Hastings concentrates on a single singer. Here
he comes much closer to the kind of studies written by Henry
Roth on violin recordings and even closer to Mortimer Frank’s
book on Toscanini’s NBC years, and John Ardoin’s
study of Furtwängler’s recordings. Hastings sits
closer to Ardoin, I feel, in his scrupulous analysis and sifting.
The wealth and depth of analysis is inspiring. It’s also
not at all dry. One thing it’s important to make clear
at the outset is that this book isn’t a discography. For
that you need Harald Henrysson’s A Jussi Björling
Phonography, the second edition of which was published in
1993. It’s also not a biography though clearly there is
a biographical element at work; for the biography there is nothing
better than Jussi by Andrew Farkas and Anna-Lisa Bjorling,
Since, negatively, I’ve noted what it isn’t, it’s
time to say what it is. In nearly 400 pages of text (up to page
352) and notes Hastings provides composer by composer analyses
of the entirety of the tenor’s recordings, with the exception
of the dance music records he made under the name of Erik Odde.
There is a discography of his ‘remaining recordings’,
which are lighter ballad material such as For You Alone,
Tosti and traditional songs to which he devotes a few pages
of analysis. To give you some indication of the range of the
main body of the book, there are 16 pages on Gounod’s
Faust alone, and a similar amount devoted to Romeo
and Juliet. Yet whilst this is perfectly sufficient to cover
in detail, and with considerable supporting critical apparatus
Björling various performances or surviving arias, this
is dwarfed by the two great Italian blocks of Puccini and Verdi.
Pages 122 to 199 alone are devoted to Verdi, and ninety pages
(pages 238 to 328) to Verdi. Thus nearly half of the text is
devoted, properly, to the two composers with whom he was majorly
associated, and of whose performances a huge amount can be said.
Hastings compares and contrasts Björling with other eminent
singers. His superlatives are judiciously employed and mercifully
they are not omnipresent. He contents himself when discussing
the Missa Solemnis with the comment that ‘only
a handful of the thirty-nine recordings of full-scale operas
and religious works with Björling can be considered close
to definitive in their all-round excellence’ but that
this one is of that handful. The coolly measured nature of the
comment is not Olympian but it is rooted in a series of value
and aesthetic-musical judgements that one can follow or, if
one so chooses, dissent from. I doubt though whether there will
be much dissent given the encyclopaedic nature of the analysis
and its closely argued commentary.
Stephen Hastings makes a good case in favour of Björling
the lieder singer. This is an area of his art that has not been
as fully explored as it might, and the ten Schubert lieder that
survive are persuasively advanced as important documents. Then,
too, one notices what is not here: how shocking to see how little
Mozart has survived; just two arias, both obvious ones from
The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni; and this of
an opera composer whose music the tenor is on record as saying
‘suits me best’.
There is a discography of recordings cited in their CD incarnations-thus
the need for Henrysson which this book could hardly replicate
in that respect, in addition to the text. If you need to dip
in, I suggest you bypass the big swathes of operatic literature
and content yourself with the passages on Hugo Alfvén.
There are only four surviving songs, one in multiple performances.
You will find Hastings’s writing judicious, clear, technically
elucidatory, and studded with relevant and apposite background
material. You will, thus, find your perceptions and appreciation
widened and will go back to the recordings inquisitive to see
if your own view tallies with Hastings’s own. This, surely,
is the essence of great criticism.
Criticism is not something that is absent from the other book
under review, Yrsa Stenius’s The heart of Jussi Björling.
By her account his heart was in his liver. I have seldom read
a book, short of biographies of Dylan Thomas and Scott Fitzgerald,
in which the subject’s alcoholic intake is more addressed.
Did Björling drink more than Malcolm Lowry: is that possible?
This chatty, informal unedited version in English of a book
first published in Swedish in 2002 sits at the far side of Björling
Studies from Hastings’s magisterial work. It involves
reported speech and journalistic speculations, some naive circumlocutions
and addresses to the reader. The florid style is matched by
imprecision. Her rather all-purpose comments on the tenor’s
Italian pronunciation are undone by Hastings’s specificities.
Stylistically, and this example is not wholly atypical, it’s
surely impermissible to write the following and to retain the
confidence of a reader: ‘I’m trying to get a sighting
of him in the viewfinder of my psychological binoculars’.
So, yes, there are comments on his child born out of wedlock,
as it’s rather charmingly called. There is an interesting
passage on the confluence of language and confidence, on how
tongue tied and insecure he was, on his increasingly serious
medical ailments, the arrhythmia and the depression. The passages
where he is scared to perform, scared to be the ‘Jussi
Björling’ he felt unworthy of being, may well be
lucidly based on truth. But there really is too much about his
alcoholism, and too little penetrating analysis. For a serious
biography you need Farkas/Björling.
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