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Jussi Björling - The Swedish Caruso
Jussi Björling (tenor)
various accompaniments
Full contents list at end of review
rec. 1929–1959
DOCUMENTS 600034 [10 CDs: 43:48 + 46:19 + 43:48 +48:51 + 52:25 +54:03 + 43:20 + 57:30 + 43:23 + 57:52]

Is there really a market for yet another jumbo box with Jussi Björling recordings? EMI have already issued one, Sony another and Naxos reissued the discs originally released as single CDs, with excerpts from his complete recordings added. It seems that the latter box has not been issued internationally though the Swedish version arrived about a year ago. Besides these there are issues from WHRA, Bluebell and sundry other labels. The advantage with this Documents box is the extremely low price: 10 CDs for little more than one full-price disc. Admittedly the playing time for each disc is not very generous but at around 9 hours of music one still gets much for little money.
The recordings are presented in chronological order, some departures notwithstanding. One can follow Björling’s development, from the early songs recorded when he was not yet nineteen, to the live recorded recital in Atlanta, made less than 1½ year before his untimely death in September 1960.
There is little to add to what has already been written about JB’s singing. Readers who want to engross themselves further with an outstanding guide are advised to buy Stephen Hastings’ comprehensive book The Björling Sound (review). My aim when going through these discs was primarily to dip in and sample a number of songs and arias to find out the technical quality; at the give-away price one can always suspect that the technical side has been compromised. I had already come across a similar box from the same company covering Birgit Nilsson’s early recordings, live as well as studio, and had no objections to the sound; this also goes for the present issue. As a matter of fact from the very earliest 78s - now more than 80 years old - the sound that leaps from the loudspeakers is splendid and life-like. These recordings reveal that the beauty of the voice that many know mainly from his later recordings was something inherent from the outset. It must be remembered that Björling was no beginner in 1929, having toured with his brothers Olle and Gösta and their father David since Jussi was four(!), amassing some 1000 documented appearances all around Sweden but also in many states in North America. One can marvel at the crystal clear enunciation; not a syllable is muddled. Even the orchestras are well caught, the sound somewhat congested and the strings rather thin. Instrumental details come over well - harp and woodwind solos for instance. Even as early as this, Jussi was a fully-fledged singer and artist. His Ah, leve-toi from Roméo et Juliette has ardour and self-assurance as well as beauty of tone. Do keep in mind that he was not yet 20. Everything is sung in Swedish on these early sides, which is no real drawback, for two reasons. Firstly Swedish is a very singable language with open vowels and no intruding Ach-Lauts and things. Secondly, since Jussi is singing in his mother-tongue everything comes absolutely naturally to him. I have always admired his singing in Italian and French but it must be admitted that there is an ever so thin veil between the singer and the listener. That veil is totally absent when he sings in Swedish. The only genuine Swedish songs here, two Peterson-Berger examples that followed Jussi throughout his career, are especially expressive. Bland skogens höga furustammar has more forward movement here than in his better-known recording from 1957. The conductor in both cases is Nils Grevillius, but 27 years had passed and Grevillius was nearing 70; he no longer had that spring in the step when accompanying Jussi on his walk through the woods. The beautifully honeyed pianissimo in the Elgar song is something to savour. Carmela is notable sonically for the very distinct recording of the pizzicato strings in the intro and the ritornellos. In Tanti’s Serenade his tone is impressively baritonal – and there is a very fine violin solo. Occasionally his intonation falters and not only in this song. It seems that he runs out of breath – but this is a small price to pay for so much accomplished singing and such glorious tone.
The space between the different numbers is commendably wide, which is not always the case with reissues. Dein ist mein ganzes Herz is sung with glowing ardour. The aria was rather new at the time, but already a world hit, thanks to Richard Tauber. It remained in Jussi’s live repertoire and can be heard in the Gala Concert of Karajan’s Fledermaus, recorded shortly before Jussi’s death.
All these goodies are on CD 1. There are more opera arias on CD 2, including two rarities from operas that Jussi sang during his tenure at the Stockholm opera. Laparra’s L’illustre Fregona was seen in 1932 and Fanal, by Kurt Atterberg, two years later. This was Jussi’s only world premiere. Both Laparra and his operas are today totally forgotten, while Atterberg was vastly successful, primarily as a symphonist - his Dollar Symphony was recorded by both Beecham and Toscanini. After WW2 his music largely disappeared, due to his supposed Nazi sympathies, but now he seems to be returning to the limelight again. CPO have recorded large portions of his orchestral music and now Chandos are following suit.
When we reach the year 1936 and his first recording for HMV’s premium label of arias from Aida and Bohème - not Tosca as the cover says - we hear the fully developed master singer. It was these seminal sides that launched his international career.
CD 3 contains a string of pearls of his best recordings of standard repertoire. They are all well known to lovers of great singing and should be in every collection. To pick some of them in preference to others is both impossible and unfair, but Au mont Ida from La belle Hélène (still in Swedish) has never been surpassed and Cujus animam with the high D is astounding. We also get a number where he sings opposite his most frequent stage partner anywhere, Hjördis Schymberg. They both appeared in Der Zigeunerbaron, which was one of the last new roles Jussi sang in Stockholm before he left for the Met.
On CD 4 Salut, demeure reminds us that Faust was perhaps his very best role, also saved for posterity in two ‘complete’ live recordings from Met. Soundwise this is also a good test piece as to how well the violin solo at the end of the aria registers. It is distant but still audible which is praise to both original recording and transfer.
Jussi Björling as Lieder singer often leaves the listener in two minds. The beauty of the voice and the musicality, the phrasing, are never in question but the interpretations sometimes seem rather shallow. Adelaide though has always been universally praised for both aspects – here he peers deeper than in many other cases. This is one of the best versions of the much-loved song – and in saying that I don’t forget Schlusnus, Fischer-Dieskau or Wunderlich. Unfortunately thereis a lot of distortion on this track. Probably Document were not able to find a satisfying original - a great pity. Morgen is not afflicted with such problems and must also be counted as one of his most successful recordings of Lieder. Harry Ebert’s accompaniments are flexible throughout. The Sibelius and Alfvén songs were frequently performed in his international recitals whereas Eklöf’s Morgon was largely reserved for his appearances in Sweden. This represents dark and imposing nationalist singing of the highest order.
CD 5 begins with Questa o quella from Rigoletto. Comparing it with the Swedish version from 14 years earlier it’s easy to hear the greater maturity, the total control of the voice as well as the increased dramatic impact - the interpolated laughter is more malicious. Come un bel di di Maggio makes one regret that he never assumed the role of Andrea Chenier, which would have suited him to perfection, just as it also was Gigli’s favourite role.
All the Italian arias on this CD were re-recorded in the 1950s, either as complete operas or separately. What is so remarkable is that the vocal differences are almost non-existent. He preserved his voice so well, in spite of illness and other problems. On the other hand he didn’t change his interpretations very much either.
Another role that he never assumed but which should have been ideal for him is Des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon. Ah, fuyez douce image as sung here demonstrates the loss. The other Des Grieux, in Puccini’s opera, was one of his best roles during the 1950s. So was Turiddu in Cavalleria rusticana, the only opera he did twice in the studio. His Mamma, quel vino is among the most intense and gripping ever recorded. The duet from Roméo et Juliette is a live recording where he is partnered by his wife Anna-Lisa, who was no mean singer and could have had an illustrious career in her own right. Jussi sings wonderfully in this duet, Anna-Lisa is more fragile, not unsuitable for the role, and when they sing in unison at the end there is a sense of magnetism between the two.
On CD 6 we get a beautiful reading of Godard’s Berceuse (sung in English) and alternative versions of the Flower Song and Mamma, quel vino, though I’m uncertain about the Bizet; it might be the same recording. Four of the five legendary duet recordings with Robert Merrill are included here, the missing one is O Mimi from La Bohème, and why it was scrapped is impossible to understand. There was plenty of space left on the disc, playing for only 54 minutes. The duet from Manon Lescaut, from the complete studio recording¸ finds Jussi on top form, while Licia Albanese is truly involved but vocally worn.
The Gounod duet with Anna-Lisa that opens CD 7 is not directly hi-fi. There are pops and clicks galore but the singing is fine. The rest of the disc is occupied with excerpts from three complete studio sets: an overwhelming Pagliacci with a hair-rising finale, a deeply moving tomb scene from Aida and the big duet from act I of Tosca. Victoria de los Angeles is a fine Nedda and both Tosca and Aida are sung by Zinka Milanov. The Tosca excerpt is in stereo.
CD 8 is divided between excerpts from Rigoletto and Turandot. The Rigoletto sound is rather primitive, but this was never one of RCA’s best recordings, due, some say, to the terrible heat-wave that made life in Rome almost unbearable during the recording sessions. However the Naxos transfers are better. Questa o quella is more strained than the recording from the 1940s. E il sol dell’anima is excellent and Roberta Peters is a more than passable Gilda. Ella mi fu rapita is better than I remembered it. In La donna e mobile he presses too hard but the quartet is fine. There was a conflict between Jussi and Jonel Perlea, the conductor, that made Jussi leave Rome after the ensemble recordings. He went home to Stockholm, where he recorded the solos to a pre-recorded orchestra.
Calaf was a role that Jussi learnt specifically for this recording of Turandot, though he had often sung Nessun dorma in recital. He is in splendid form and his Met colleague Giorgio Tozzi is a great Timur. Birgit Nilsson was the Turandot for many years and even though she was even better in her later recording with Corelli as Calaf she is impressive also here. Tebaldi, of whom only glimpses are heard, sings beautifully but is rather matronly for the little weak Liù. Unfortunately the tracks are not separated sufficiently on this disc. This is also a stereo recording.
On CD 9 we get the complete first act from the Beecham La Bohème (EMI). The recording is excellent. My LP records were rather dim but here we get a really clear recording of the orchestra, where we can enjoy Beecham’s care over the details of Puccini’s transparent score. There is inspired singing and acting from all hands. My intention was to just sample the sound quality, having known the recording for almost 50 years, but I ended up playing the whole act twice. The fillers are another O soave fanciulla live from San Francisco with Anna-Lisa as Mimi and Ingemisco from Verdi’s Requiem. On the back of the box the anonymous blurb writer says that it is from Toscanini’s recording, but the sleeve confirms that this is in fact from the Hilversum concert in 1939. Jussi was in splendid form on both occasions.
So he was also at the Atlanta recital from 1959, which fills CD 10. The recording favours the piano with the singer somewhere in the background. This is practically the only negative thing about this recital. The Handel aria may not be the stylistically best informed version but the singing per se is great. The Schubert songs are good. The Strauss is even better with a marvellous Heimliche Aufforderung, soft and inward. The Flower Song is nuanced and lyrical. Then comes an intense build-up to Je t’aime, but with no final diminuendo. Two Rachmaninov songs are also very inspired. There’s then a whole section with Scandinavian songs – but no Sibelius. Sjöberg’s Tonerna is perhaps the best he ever did. The three concluding opera arias are also glorious with Nessun dorma the farewell song. I suspect many in the audience had problems sleeping after this superb recital.
Presentation is very modest. Each CD comes in a simple cardboard sleeve with a track-list on the reverse, composers, timings and recording dates plus conductor/pianist and, where appropriate, other participants. There is no biography, no comments on the music.
This is not primarily a box for jaded collectors, who presumably already are well stocked with most of this material. However, considering the ridiculously low price, the sound quality and the encyclopedic contents this should be a splendid present to somebody just starting to develop an interest in Jussi Björling. It would also be a good buy for anyone who wants to acquire a generously broad collection of his recordings.
Göran Forsling
Full contents list
CD1: Torna a Surriento (Ernesto de Curtis); For you alone (Henry Ernest Geehl); Ah! Leve-toi soleil - Romeo et Juliette (Gounod); Questa o quella - Rigoletto (Verdi); Serenata (Toselli); Mattinata (Leoncavallo); Nar jag for mig sjalv i morka skogen gar (Wilhelm Peterson-Berger); Bland skogens hoga furustammar (Wilhelm Peterson-Berger); Violer (Elgar); Carmela (Giambattista de Curtis); Tantis serenad (Trad); Love me and the world is mine (Ernest R Ball); The sunshine of your smile (L Ray); Dein ist mein ganzes Herz - The Land of Smiles (Lehar); Von Apfelbluten einen Kranz (Lehar);
CD2: Heut' Nacht hab' ich getraumt von dir (Kalman); La donna e mobile (Verdi); Recondita armonia (Puccini); E lucevan le stelle (Puccini); Vesti la giubba - Pagliacci (Leoncavallo); Bachanal (Dahl); Melancolique tombe le soir (Laparra); I manner over lag och ratt (Atterberg); Ch'ella mi creda - La Fanciulla del West (Puccini); Song of India - Sadko (Rimsky-Korsakov); Se quel guerrier io fossi … Celeste Aida (Verdi); Che gelida manina - Tosca (Puccini); Allt under himmelens faste (Trad); Ack Varmeland du skona (Trad);
CD3: Cielo e mar - La Gioconda (Ponchielli); Mi batte il cor … O paradiso - L'Africaine (Meyerbeer); Ch'ella mi creda libero - La Fanciulla del West (Puccini); Ideale (Tosti); Only a rose - The Vagabond King (Rudolf Friml); For you alone (Henry Ernest Geehl); Ich hab' kein Geld bin vogelfrei (Carl Millocker); Au mont Ida trois deesses - La belle Helene (Offenbach); Instant charmant … - Manon (Massenet); Cujus animam - Stabat mater (Rossini); Ingemisco - Requiem (Verdi); Wer uns getraut? - The Gypsy Baron (Johann Strauss); La fleur que tu m'avais jetee - Carmen (Bizet);
CD4: Ah si ben mio / Di quella pira - Il trovatore (Verdi); Salut! Demeure chaste e pure - Faust (Gounod); Adelaide (Beethoven); Morgen!; Cacilie (Richard Strauss); M'appari tutt'amor - Martha (Flotow); An Sylvia; Standchen; An die Leier (Schubert); Svarta rosor; Sav sav sua (Sibelius); Skogen sover (Alfven); Morgon (Ejnar Eklof);
CD5: Questa o quella - Rigoletto (Verdi); Come un bel di di maggio - Andrea Chenier (Giordano); Amor ti vieta - Fedora; Nessun dorma (Puccini); Mamma! quel vino… - Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni); Recitar … Vesti la giubba - Pagliacci (Leoncavallo); Mattinata (Leoncavallo); Di' tu se fedele - Un ballo in maschera (Verdi); Ah! leve-toi soleil - Romeo et Juliette (Gounod); Je suis seul! … - Manon (Massenet); Una furtiva lagrima - L'elisir d'amore (Donizetti); In the silence of night; Lilacs (Rachmaninov); E la solita storia - L'Arlesiana (Cilea); Donna non vivi mai - Manon Lescaut (Puccini); Donna non vivi mai - Manon Lescaut (Puccini); Ange adorable - Romeo et Juliette (Gounod);
CD6: O Lola - Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni); Berceuse - Jocelyn (Godard); La fleur que tu m'avais jetee - Carmen (Bizet); Mamma! quel vino… - Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni); Io l'ho perduta;; Qual pallor;; Dio que nell;; - Don Carlos (Verdi); O mostruosa colpa …Si pel ciel marmoreo giuro - Otello (Verdi); Solenne in quest'ora - La forza del destino (Verdi); Se quel guerrier io fossi … Celeste Aida - Aida (Verdi); Au fond du temple saint - The Pearl Fishers (Bizet); Cielo e mar! - La Gioconda (Ponchielli); Oh saro …Tu tu amore? - Manon Lescaut (Puccini);
CD7: Va je t'ai pardonne … Nuit d'hymenee (Gounod); Recitar! … Vesti la giubba - Pagliacci (Leoncavallo); Number Pagliaccio non son - Pagliacci (Leoncavallo); La fatal pietra … O terra addio - Aida (Verdi); Mario Mario Mario! - Tosca (Puccini);
CD8: Rigoletto : Prelude / Della mia bella incognita borghese / Questa o quella / E il sol dell'anima / Ella mi fu rapita! …Parmi veder / E l'ami? / La donna e moblile / Un di se ben rammentomi / Bella figlia dell'amore (Verdi); Turandot : O divina belezza / Figlio che fai? / Non indugiare! / Non piangere Liu! / Un giuramento atroce mi costringe / Nessun dorma / Principessa di morte! / Che e mai di me? / Del primo pianto (Puccini);
CD9: La Boheme : Questo Mar Rosso mi ammollisce e assidera / Aguzza l'ingegno / Legna!;;; Sigari!;;; Bordo! / Si puo?;;; Chi e la? / Al Quartiere Latin ci attende Momus / Chi e la? / Oh! sventata sventata! / Che gelida manina! / Si mi chiamano Mimi / Ehi! Rodolfo! / O soave fanciulla / O soave fanciulla (with Anna-Lisa Bjorling) (Puccini); Ingemisco - Requiem (Verdi);
CD10: Frondi tenere;;; Ombra mai fu - Xerxes (Handel); Fruhlingsglaube; Die Forelle; Standchen (Schubert); Traum durch die Dammerung; Zueignung (Richard Strauss); La fleur que tu m'avais jetee - Carmen (Bizet); Amor ti vieta - Fedora (Giordano); Siren - Lilacs; V molchan'i nochi taynoy (Rachmaninov); Skogen sover (Alfven); I drommen du ar mig nara (Emil Sjorgren); Jungfru under lind (Wilhelm Peterson-Berger); En svane; En drom (Grieg); Tonerna (Carl Sjoberg); Come un bel di di maggio - Andrea Chenier