, December 2008
In the seventh volume of the Naxos Björling series we meet the tenor in Swedish songs, recorded between 1929 (when he was not yet 19!) and 1953, his last 78 rpm recordings. The songs can be roughly divided in two categories: nationalist or patriotic songs and songs that pay tribute to the beauty of nature which also is a kind of nationalism. Some of the songs are by important composers with at least some international reputation, like Alfvén, Peterson-Berger and Stenhammar, others by composers with a standing mainly within Sweden—and there are also songs by more or less musical amateurs. This was in fact the repertoire through which Jussi Björling reached a popularity among ‘common’ people in his native country that is unparalleled. He often included them in his recital programmes, primarily as encores, some of them also in his international programmes.
The songs are presented chronologically, which gives the listener an opportunity to follow his development. It is quite stunning to hear the first two songs, recorded just before Christmas 1929, a few weeks before his nineteenth birthday. All the characteristics are there: the smooth, even tone, the musical phrasing, the breath control and knowing that this is in fact a teenage boy it is easy to disregard from some uncertainly, from the weak lower notes and the somewhat stiff delivery of the text. It should be noted that Emil Sjögren, who wrote I drömmen du är mig nära, was the first important composer of art songs in Sweden.
At the next session, less than a year later, the voice is already fuller, the attack more vital. The two songs by Peterson-Berger remained in his repertoire and were recorded again in 1957, coupled on an EP with Stenhammar’s Sverige, Sjöberg’s Tonerna and Althén’s Land du välsignade—all of them heard on early recordings here. The EP was my very first gramophone record and being for a while the one and only I played it almost continuously. The orchestra sounds immensely better than on these early recordings and it is hard to believe that 27 years separate the Peterson-Berger recordings. The mature Björling, 47 at the time, had greater authority and greater intensity but the voice is in the main the same—slightly darker in the late 1950s. When he set down Tonerna, one of his favourite songs, for the first time in 1936 he was a fully fledged tenor on the threshold to an international career and he ends the song on a wonderful diminuendo. He does the same 21 years later and both readings should be unsurpassed, were it not for the fact that in 1952 he recorded the song with piano—issued on the LP “Jussi Björling in Song” and that recording is the most masterly ever of any song by any singer. Strong words, I know but I won’t withdraw from them an iota. That LP, by the way, was issued by Naxos about four years ago, with some earlier Lieder recordings added for good measure (Jussi Björling Collection, Vol. 5 - 8.110789).
If he is at his lyrical best in Tonerna he is both powerfully brilliant and weakly lyrical in Ack Värmeland du sköna. This folksong from the province of Värmland in Western Sweden has become internationally famous, at least among jazz diggers, after Stan Getz heard it and recorded it, but then entitled Dear old Stockholm. There is also some melodic likeness with the main theme in Smetana’s Moldau, and since Smetana worked for several years in Gothenburg he may have heard the song and assimilated the tune—but I doubt he heard it sung as well as Jussi Björling. The only non-Swedish composer here is Danish Mogens Schrader, whose Sommarnatt is a fine vehicle for Jussi’s flexible voice, sung here with infallible legato and rounded off with a glorious high C.
Sverige, sometimes regarded as the second national anthem of Sweden, was originally conceived for mixed choir as part of the cantata Ett folk. The lyrics are by Nobel Prize winner Verner von Heidenstam. As a choral piece it is enormous gripping—I have sung it on numerous occasions—but also as a solo song Jussi Björling catches all the warmth and nobility.
Another song normally heard by male choirs is Sjungom studentens lyckliga dar. It was composed by a member of the Royal Family, the second son of King Oscar I. Prince Gustaf died very young but some of his music is still performed and this jolly song for students leaving high school is known by most Swedes. It is sung here by a male quartet and Jussi comes in midway through the song. But it is of special interest since this was the song with which he began his career at the age of four, singing it together with his brothers.
Hugo Alfvén wrote a number of excellent songs, none better than Skogen sover, which Björling sings with superb legato. This song and Eklöf’s Morgon were recorded with piano accompaniment in the US in 1940 and unlike the rest of the songs here they were issued on HMV’s international DB series. Gustaf Nordqvist was a prolific song composer and Till havs is no doubt the best known, primarily through Jussi. It is a brilliant showpiece while P-B’s Jungfrun under lind is one of the most beautiful love songs in Swedish. The two songs by Sven Salén—once the winner of an Olympic bronze medal in sailing and founder of one of Sweden’s largest shipping companies—were not in Jussi’s recital repertoire but he recorded them specifically for the benefit of a charity organization. The pompous Sången till havet shows the old sailor’s fascination for the sea while the other song is a gentle and heartfelt painting of Swedish summer nights.
Having lived with these songs for most of my life they are today second nature but I am sure also non-Scandinavians will be able to enjoy them. After all I loved Italian songs long before I ever visited that country. And—hearing Jussi Björling in whatever repertoire is always a treat. The audio restoration engineer Stefan Lindström has been ‘extremely economical with noise reduction’ to preserve as much as possible of Björling’s unique timbre. And Harald Henrysson’s has as always poured from his cornucopia of knowledge for the tremendously informative and well written notes. Another disc to treasure in this invaluable series.