, October 2004
“Divided so that the first nine tracks are conducted by Nils Grevillius and the rest by Renato Cellini, this is the eminently praiseworthy latest instalment in Naxos’s Björling series. The Grevillius items date from 1945–1950; all tracks are presented chronologically. The earlier recordings here have a youthful freshness allied to musical maturity — Björling was born in 1911. There is an ardent aspect to the lovely aria ‘Ah! Lève toi, soleil’ from Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and sung in French — Björling had previously recorded it in Swedish as his very first recording. Here there is an expressive quality that overflows somewhat in Massenet’s beautiful ‘Je suis seul! … Ah! Fuyez douce image’ (from Manon).
It is in ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ that Björling really sounds at home. The phrasing here is incomparable, the tenor singing a magnificent line and there is a great flourish at the end! In fact it is only in the Mascagni item (‘O Lola’) that some over–enthusiastic expression moves close to shouting; the shrillness of the recording of this track does not help matters. The great disappointment, though, is the Godard item. After a lovely, sensitive introduction, it took a while to realise what language Björling is singing in — it is English, by the way. It is a relief to get to ‘La fleur que tu m’avais jetée’ (Carmen), which is some real music, too; the Godard is insubstantial fluff. The second Mascagni (‘Mamma! … Quel vino è generoso’) finds Björling opening out nicely. Both the Bizet and this second Mascagni track are first CD issues.
The most extended track is an excerpt from Don Carlos — an opera that doesn’t yield well to chopping up into bits, anyway. Heard in this way, as a recorded snippet, it loses its import, sounding like a fragment that is trying to be a succession of good tunes and not quite gelling. Cellini’s fast tempo aids this superficial feeling. This is very much Verdi subservient to Björling rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, Björling’s sense of line remains a thing of wonder. Ironically, though, it is the bass Emil Markow whose dark voice speaks of more intimate sympathy with the music.
It was a nice touch to follow the intensity of Don Carlos with similarly heightened emotions from Otello. These are the first two of five tracks that feature Björling and Robert Merrill together. In Otello there is more identification with the dramatic scenario, a black undercurrent running throughout. Cries of ‘Sangue’ are believably over–wrought. The Bohème excerpt acts as jaunty, delightful contrast, exploding on our consciousness as an ejaculation of bonhomie before embarking on labyrinthine Puccinian paths. Björling and Merrill seem to spark off each other beautifully.
‘Solenne in quest’ora’ exudes sadness. It precedes one of the most famous recordings ever made, the Pearl Fisher’s Duet with Björling and Merrill. A miraculous outpouring, it fully deserves its hallowed status. Just sit back and let the magnificence flow over you in waves.
Björling’s unerring sense of line is fully in evidence in the ‘Che gelida manina’ … and what greater contrast could there be than ‘Se quel guerrier’ — Aida, here preceded by soft strings before the rude awakening of the trumpet fanfares. Björling drips with dignity and heroism before waxing lyrical on the subject of his beloved. Throughout there is the feeling that you just know he’s going to show off at the end — he does not disappoint.
Ponchielli’s ‘Cielo e mar’ from Gioconda is if not the most obvious choice with which to end an inspired one for it serves to underline Björling’s superb lyrical bent.
Very much recommended as a vibrant example of Björling’s art.”