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8.110722 - BJORLING, Jussi: Bjorling Collection, Vol. 1: Opera and Operetta Recordings (1930-1938)

Jussi Björling: Collection,Vol

Jussi Björling: Collection,Vol. 1

Complete Opera and Operetta Recordings in Swedish (1930-38)

Jussi Björling was born in February 1911 (on the 5th according to the midwife’s register, though he celebrated his birthday on the 2nd in accordance with the church register) in Sweden’s province of Dalarna, near the centre of what is today the city of Borlänge. Stora Tuna, often given as his birthplace, is the name of the village where the family was then living and which is now a part of Borlänge. Jussi’s father David was also a tenor, who taught his three oldest boys Olle, Jussi and Gösta to sing from their earliest childhood. He let them perform in public before Jussi was five and as the "Bjoerling Male Quartet" they toured extensively in Sweden, and in 1919-21 also in the USA. David died in 1926, the group (now also including the fourth brother) disbanded not long after and Jussi entered the Stockholm Conservatory in 1928. Here, and at the Opera School, he had the famous baritone John Forsell (also the Royal Opera manager) as his teacher.

In 1930, at the age of nineteen, Jussi made his official début at the Royal Opera in Stockholm as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni and in the next few years sang a wide repertoire of rôles there, ranging from Mozart to Wagner. His first major breakthrough came at a recital at Tivoli in Copenhagen in 1931. As an opera singer, he made his first solo tours outside Sweden in 1936 and 1937, still singing his rôles in Swedish. He then appeared in Czechoslovakia and Germany but primarily at the Vienna Opera and was everywhere greeted with great acclaim. In the autumn of 1937 he gave his first London recital en route to the United States, where his schedule included three General Motors radio concerts from Carnegie Hall and opera performances in Chicago in Rigoletto and La bohème. Jussi Björling’s successful Metropolitan début came in November 1938 as Rodolfo.

In 1939, Björling made his Covent Garden début in Il trovatore and in 1940 he opened the Met season for the first time in the new production of Un ballo in maschera where he appeared as King Gustav III of Sweden. During the later war years, he mainly remained in his native country. However, his Italian opera début took place in 1943 in Il trovatore in Florence.

When the war was over, Jussi Björling returned to the United States for an eight-month tour and during the rest of his life he sang extensively there, as an opera artist with the Metropolitan, San Francisco and Chicago operas but still more in recital and concert, often on radio and TV in programmes such as the Ford Sunday Evening Hour, Voice of Firestone and Standard Hour. Björling always returned to Sweden and spent the summers with his family at Siarö in the Stockholm archipelago. He also sang often in opera and concert in Sweden and the other Nordic countries. He appeared twice in Milan with the La Scala company (Rigoletto in 1946, Un ballo in maschera in 1951) but returned to Covent Garden only in 1960 (La bohème), though he was heard in recital many times in Britain during the 1950s. In 1954, he made an extensive concert tour of South Africa.

Jussi Björling’s complete opera repertoire comprised 55 rôles, but most of them were abandoned on his road to world fame. Thus, his total opera repertoire after the war consisted of twelve roles: he continued to sing ten operas which he had learned (in Swedish) in Stockholm before 1936: Aida, Il trovatore, Un ballo in maschera, Rigoletto, La bohème, Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci in the Italian repertoire and Gounod’s Faust and Roméo et Juliette in the French. In later years, he added Puccini’s Manon Lescaut and Verdi’s Don Carlos, the latter in the famous production which opened the Met’s season and Rudolf Bing’s era as general manager, in 1950.

During his last years, Jussi Björling suffered from heart disease. His life was prematurely ended by a heart attack in his sleep at his beloved Siarö on 9th September 1960. It is now more evident than ever that the world then lost one of its most outstanding artists; for instance, in several "millennium" polls in different countries he has been selected as the greatest singer of the century. Fortunately, he left behind a vast recorded output through which we are able to experience his artistry. Björling’s was a voice of rare beauty and unmistakable timbre with a characteristic slight sadness in it. It was even through the whole register up to the splendid and easily produced top notes, and was produced with a perfect technique and great musicality and sense of style. His singing was immediately communicative, and he could reach great dramatic intensity without resorting to non-musical effects.

The earlier Naxos Historical Jussi Björling CD was entirely devoted to his international record career for the HMV Red Label, beginning in 1936, when he first sang opera in the original Italian and French. Here we can hear the young Björling (or rather the very young — in 1936 he was still only 25) sing opera and operetta in his native Swedish, the language in which he learned almost all his rôles and performed them for the first time at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. As on the former CD, the Royal Court Conductor Nils Grevillius, Jussi Björling’s close friend, is in charge of the orchestra (with two exceptions among the operetta recordings).

Skandinaviska Grammophon AB, the Swedish HMV distributor, realised Jussi Björling’s potential at an early stage. According to his brother Gösta, Jussi was recommended to the company by John Forsell, the director of the Royal Opera and Jussi’s singing teacher. On 4th October 1929, while still a student at the Conservatory, Jussi Björling signed his first recording contract, valid for two years. One year later, after he had produced three 78s of songs, from which Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life from Herbert’s Naughty Marietta, is included on this CD, Jussi made his first operatic recordings. When he recorded his first opera arias on 29th September 1930, his official operatic début had recently taken place (on 20 August). A future in opera was then clearly predictable for Jussi. The arias chosen, the Duke’s ballad from Rigoletto and Roméo’s cavatina, were both from operas which would later belong to his favourites, but he had still to wait one and a half years for his début as the Duke and three years for his début as Roméo.

These first recordings show an astonishing maturity in the nineteen-year-old singer. The voice is not fully formed in some details, and the interpretation would develop much over time, but the perfect intonation, the easy breath, the sense of style are already there. There is also a special, charming innocence in the youthful voice. It is important to remember that Jussi had been singing in public since the age of four and that his father had very early on taught him the sound technique, with which he entered the Conservatory and which he basically retained all his life. Few tenors, if any, have been so consistent in voice and musical approach over their whole career.

When Jussi Björling made his next operatic recordings in March 1933, he was already an experienced opera singer with 25 rôles in his repertoire, but he was also still recording dance tunes under the pseudonym of Erik Odde. The serenade from the Frenchman Raoul Laparra’s merry and colourful zarzuela L’illustre Fregona was chosen for one of the sides, probably because this now forgotten work was successfully put on in Stockholm during the years 1932-1937 with Jussi in the role of Tomas. Vladimir’s cavatina from Borodin’s Prince Igor, which he performed on stage for the first time the same month as the recording was made, was chosen for the other side. Until the end of his life, Jussi Björling continued to sing the cavatina in concert in Swedish, like the other Russian item on this CD, the Song of the Indian Guest from Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. The latter was recorded in October 1936, after he had sung the opera on stage for the last time.

Both Tosca arias had already been sung by Jussi Björling early in his concert career; in November 1933 he recorded them soon after his first stage performance of the opera. That session marked a definite change in his recording repertoire towards the "serious" side. Successes at the Royal Opera during the year, besides Tosca, for example Roméo et Juliette, may have given the record company a clear indication of Jussi’s opera potential. La donna è mobile from Rigoletto was recorded a month later, almost two years after Björling had included the Duke in his repertoire, as the first of the dozen rôles in which he would become world-famous. In 1933-1934, he recorded four more Italian arias from the standard tenor repertoire: Vesti la giubba from Pagliacci, the "stretta" from Il trovatore (which was transposed down in this first recording), the Cavalleria rusticana serenade and Ch’ella mi creda from La fanciulla del West. Except the last one, these arias were all recorded long before Jussi had yet sung them on stage.

Of the five Swedish operas in Björling’s repertoire, Kurt Atterberg’s Fanal was the most successful, performed 23 times, and his recording of Martin Skarp’s aria was his only "creator’s record": the Stockholm première in 1934 was also the world première. The plot of this opera deals with a peasant uprising in Germany in the 16th century. In I männer över lag och rätt (Ye men of law and justice), Martin Skarp appeals before a court to be relieved of the duty to inherit the executioner’s profession from his deceased father.

Jussi Björling’s connection with operetta was mainly limited to his youth, when his recorded repertoire, unlike his concert repertoire, stretched far into the field of entertainment music. An operetta concert he gave in July 1934 at the Tivoli in Copenhagen, the place where he had his real breakthrough in 1931, seems to have been his only concert ever devoted entirely to the lighter muse, though single operetta tunes were sometimes found on his programmes in those early years. A Danish critic did enjoy his singing at the operetta concert in 1934, but at the same time thought that this kind of music was "alien to his nature. He is too chaste in his singing, too pure and untainted to find the right tone for this genre of sensation and sentimentality".

Over the following years, Jussi Björling appeared in two Viennese operettas at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. They were both masterpieces by Johann Strauss II: Die Fledermaus (sung ten times in 1935-36) and Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) (sung seven times in 1938). The critics were much amused by his Alfred in Die Fledermaus: "he parodied a tenor as probably only a really great tenor might do it". In Der Zigeunerbaron, his Barinkay was a vocal feast, with "sparkling life, fervour and startlingly brilliant high notes", but Jussi’s acting in that role caused reservations. The fragments which remain of a large operetta medley at Swedish Radio from 1936 also confirm that he had now found the right tone for operetta.

Of the operetta recordings here, seven belong to Jussi Björling’s earliest period, recorded no later than January 1932. The first of them, Herbert’s Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life, has already been mentioned. Two of the tunes come from the Kálmán operetta Das Veilchen vom Montmartre, which had its première in 1930, although the popular tango Heut Nacht hab’ ich geträumt von Dir was also inserted into the much earlier Die Csárdásfürstin (The Gypsy Princess) and used to be presented with that origin when Björling sang it. Two of the tunes were tenor hits from Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns (The Land of Smiles), made world famous by Richard Tauber, two came from another operetta with exotic setting, the Hungarian Paul Abraham’s Die Blume von Hawaii, which had great success in many countries soon after its première in 1931. There was also an operetta song of American origin, the title melody of Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song. Much later, during his American post-war career, Jussi Björling would include a couple of popular American operetta tunes (then of course sung in English) in his repertoire for radio and TV programmes where he was a popular guest: Romberg’s Sweethearts duet from Maytime and Victor Herbert’s Neapolitan Love Song from Princess Pat, but he never recorded those.

The four last items on this CD were recorded by Jussi Björling in 1938. He had then firmly established himself in the international record market as an opera singer on the HMV Red Label, but these operetta recordings were like his earlier ones intended only for the Scandinavian market and issued in the local "X" series. They prove that he was then able to use his outstanding vocal resources with full understanding of the operetta’s special demands and are now, in spite of the language, recognised as classics of their genre. Ich hab’ kein Geld from Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent (The Beggar Student) is the only of these tunes which would remain in Jussi Björling’s standard repertoire; it was always one of his most popular encore in Sweden. From the same operetta came the duet Ich setz’ den Fall, where Jussi, as in Wer uns getraut from Der Zigeunerbaron, sang with the soprano Hjördis Schymberg, often his partner at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. A single excursion into the world of French operetta was Au mont Ida trois déesses from Jacques Offenbach’s La belle Hélène (Beautiful Helen).

After his last performance of Der Zigeunerbaron in 1938, Björling took part one single time in an operetta performance, the Metropolitan’s Die Fledermaus on 14th April 1956, the last performance of that season. He only appeared there as a guest at Orlofsky’s ball and did not sing operetta music. Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (You are my heart’s delight), however, was to become one of his last recordings, made especially for another Fledermaus gala, in Herbert von Karajan’s complete recording of 1960.

Harald Henrysson

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