|About this Recording
8.110142 - BJORLING, Jussi / BJORLING, Anna-Lisa: Arias and Duets (1949)
In Concert - Jussi Bjorling
Arias and Duets
'This hour is yours' the announcer tells us at the opening of this CD, a pleasing hour indeed, in the company of the finest tenor of his day and his wife Anna-Lisa, a Conservatory-trained lyric soprano. The programme consists of favourite arias from Bjorling's operatic repertory, two duets with Anna-Lisa, three soprano solos and two numbers from the lively San Francisco Opera orchestra.
Bjorling's admirers will be familiar with his winning Rodolfo in La Boheme; here in gloriously fresh voice, he reminds us of his life as a poet in the Parisian garret. Other tenors have given the words more attention, but few can ever have sung such a ravishing, ringing 'speranza' and so sublime a closing diminuendo to the aria. But the Massenet and Gounod items are even more appealing, taken from the only two French operas that remained in Bjorling's repertory at this stage of his career. The opening of Ah fuyez, douce image from Manon is properly introspective, sympathetically capturing Des Grieux' renunciation of his 'sweet vision'. Bjorling was a superb stylist in this music, in a way that few non-French singers could (or can) emulate, and he is heard at his very best here. Then listen to his wishful insistence that it is the nightingale, not the lark, that Romeo and Juliette can hear in Gounod's duet; how could any Juliette resist his passionate persuasion to remain with him a little longer? These performances clearly illustrate why Bjorling was such an admired interpreter of these roles. Anna-Lisa does not share Jussi's self-assurance in this concert. In her solos the tone is fragile, her delivery energetic but not always accurate; it is good nevertheless to have the opportunity to hear husband and wife teamed together in one of the 'Radio Hours' that were a feature of Bjorling's recital career in the United States.
Gaetano Merola conducts the overture to Semiramide and the intermezzo from Goyescas most agreeably and gives good support to the singers in their contributions; but it is, of course, the priceless performance of Jussi Bj5rling that makes one grateful for the survival of this "anything but 'Standard' " hour.
Jussi Bjorling was born the second of four brothers in Borlange, Sweden in February 1911. His father, David, had trained as a singer and took a keen interest in his sons' musical education; in 1916 the three eldest boys gave their first public performance as a vocal trio.
Some years later young Bjorling had his first taste of touring in the USA when David led the group on a year's extended coast to coast visit, appearing before delighted American audiences as 'The Bjorling Male Quartet'. Such was the lads' reputation that they made several records for Columbia at the start of the tour – the true beginning of Jussi Bjorling's recording career. Back in Sweden their success was as great as ever until suddenly, in 1926, David died. After several hesitant attempts to resurrect their national tours, the group folded and Jussi began work as a clerk; but news of his talent (as a tenor) had gone before him and he was auditioned by the baritone John Forsell, who became one of his teachers at the Stockholm Conservatory.
While studying with Forsell, Bjorling was 'doubling' another musical career - that of dance band singer; he took the name of Erik Odde for some of his light music discs, while recording classical songs and arias at the same time, (and for the same company - HMV- ) as Jussi Bjorling! In 1930 he first appeared at the Royal Opera in Stockholm as the Lamplighter in Manon Lescaut, soon graduating to more important roles there, including Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Arnold in William Tell and Jonathan in Nielsen's Saul og David, Over the next few years Bjorling gained a good reputation in the opera houses of Sweden and northern Europe and by 1936 he was appearing further afield, in Vienna and Prague; by 1936, too, he was husband and father, having married Anna-Lisa Berg (born in 1910), a former fellow student at the Conservatory Family commitments permitting, Anna-Lisa sometimes accompanied her husband on his world-wide travels and they appeared in concerts and operas together in Sweden, Finland and the USA.
By the beginning of the war Bjorling was established as one of the foremost tenors of the century. He had sung in London, Paris, Berlin and Dresden and, in 1938, had made both recital and Metropolitan Opera debuts in New York and (again!) underwent extensive tours in the USA.
In vocal splendour he was unlike any other tenor of his day. His voice glistened with more luminous sheen than Gigli's, was more tenderly lyrical than Martinelli's, was more dramatically commanding than Schipa's. Caruso's widow is said to have commented on the similarities between Bjorling's voice and that of the late lamented Enrico - perhaps an unwise, but nevertheless telling, comparison.
Bjorling spent most of the war in Sweden, venturing beyond its borders only for occasional performances. At the end of hostilities he returned to the Met, Chicago, San Francisco and the many other cities in the States that clamoured to hear him. In the last fifteen years of his life he divided his time mainly between the USA and Scandinavia and consolidated his operatic repertory, which latterly consisted almost entirely of Italian roles. In recital Bjorling frequently included Swedish folk-songs, Italian melodie and Lieder, as well as popular operatic excerpts, such as those featured in the Standard Hour Performance on this CD.
Bjorling was in huge demand from his public, but in other ways the life of this musical giant was a troubled one. Because of a reluctance to rehearse he was in bad odour with opera house managements; he could be unreliable and argumentative and, most tragic of all, as the pressure of popularity took its toll, he sought consolation in alcohol to a dangerous degree. Surely it was this addiction that contributed to his premature death from a heart attack in 1960 at the age of only 49, while still at the height of his powers. Anna-Lisa remarried after Bjorling's death and in the years since has contributed significantly to research into his career and the maintenance of the Bjorling family archive.
The Italian conductor Gaetano Merola was born in Naples in 1881. He worked at the Met and elsewhere in New York until, in 1918, he conducted the San Carlo Opera in San Francisco for the first time Five years later he founded the San Francisco Opera which, under his guidance, was to become one of America's foremost companies, and of which he was General Director for thirty years. An imaginative conductor of considerable skill, Merola died in 1953.
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