Label : EMI
Format : Flac track
Cover : No

The recorded legacy of Jussi Björling (1911-1960) has rarely been out of the catalogues. We are now approaching 2010 when it will have been fifty years since he passed away and 2011 when we celebrate his centenary. We can be sure that the catalogue will make room for even more Björling over the next couple of years. Naxos has been busy issuing a number of Björling discs. Nimbus quite recently issued a CD with arias and duets with Robert Merrill. The legendary Carnegie Hall concert was also recently re-issued with some extra items and there have been others as well. The present volume has the somewhat misleading title “The Swedish Caruso” – misleading since his art was so distinctive that it was in itself a norm and doesn’t need a soubriquet.

This box is in effect a slightly expanded version of a set that came on the market some ten years ago, simply entitled “Jussi Björling Edition”. The first two titles on CD 3 are new: never before issued songs, recorded with piano in September 1929, when Björling was still a teenager; he was to turn nineteen almost exactly five months later. It is, from an historical point of view, valuable and interesting to have these sides which show a still immature but certainly promising singer; his voice instantly recognizable. To be sure he needed another few years before he was ready to conquer the world – which he did with the four sides he recorded in early December 1936 (CD 1 tr. 1-4). Those were his first opera records sung in the original language. They became his calling card and eventually brought him to the Metropolitan Opera. Long before that he had recorded most of the standard arias in Swedish (CD 3) and it is fascinating to hear the freshness and the healthy tone, that still needed some nurturing before he reached his peak. One could perhaps say that those were his prentice years – without them he may not have become the undoubted master.

There is not much point in going through this set track by track and comment on this and that. Much of the material is so well known that I don’t think readers, who for some reason have failed to acquire earlier issues, need much encouragement to grab the opportunity now. However there are a few things worth pointing out.

On the first two discs there isn’t a single track I would like to be without. His lyrical Cielo e mar, his vital O sole mio and the French arias have rarely been bettered; his phenomenal Cujus animam and a deeply felt Ingemisco are even better. There are also alternative takes of the two Trovatore arias that were not issued until the previous box in the 1990s. The duets with Hjördis Schymberg from Rigoletto and La bohème are also relative rarities. They are mementos of the singer with whom Björling appeared more than any other during his frequent appearances in Stockholm. There are also a couple of duets with his wife Anna-Lisa, showing that she could have had quite a successful career on her own.

On CD 3 the aria from Laparra’s L’illustre Fregona is a rarity – Björling appeared in the opera in Stockholm. He also sang Martin Skarp in Atterberg’s Fanal at the world premiere. The operetta excerpts are also something to revel in. In 1938 Björling’s voice was certainly in wonderful shape and the two duets with Schymberg are marvellous, but it is the arias from La belle Hélène and Der Bettelstudent that should be in every collection. Björling’s ardently gleaming top notes are wonders of assured vocalism. They shared an EP, which I bought in the early 1960s, with two arias from The Land of Smiles, recorded in 1932; the difference was telling. During the intervening years he had developed from a good lyric tenor to a world star. Most of the Swedish songs on this disc he re-recorded in the late 1950s to even greater effect.

His recording of Beethoven’s Adelaide has long been regarded as among the best ever and the two Strauss songs are also very good. His very best efforts as a Lieder singer are otherwise to be found on an RCA recital “Jussi Björling in Song”, recorded in 1952. It was issued some years ago on Naxos and is a splendid complement to the material here. Somewhat to my surprise I found the last five titles on CD 4, which were issued by RCA, together with a few more, on EP – obviously they were produced by Swedish Prophone Records. Söderman’s Kung Heimer och Aslög has been a favourite on request programmes on Swedish Radio for many years.

The fifth CD is new, or rather a new compilation added to the former material. It is made up of excerpts from three famous complete opera recordings, featuring Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles. Björling was no tenore robusto, like Mario del Monaco for instance, but his clean-cut lirico spinto projected the drama of Pagliacci through the bright intensity just as well as the Italian’s sheer volume. Few tenors have surpassed him in this role – at least on record. Rodolfo was perhaps Björling’s best role, anyway it was the role he performed most often. This recording with Sir Thomas Beecham has always been a top contender. It can’t compete with the Karajan on Decca when it comes to sound quality. That set as a whole is tremendously good in all other respects as well, but especially the second half of Act III is deeply moving in the Björling-los Angeles version. Madama Butterfly, recorded in September and October 1959 in Rome was Björling’s last complete opera. By then he was a sick man, having suffered several heart attacks. When the set was issued a year later Björling was already dead. He was still singing well for the Rome sessions but some of the glow is gone. Still it is good to have these two admirable singers together in the long love duet.

Technically the transfers are impeccable, EMI having been able to work from original matrices and tapes. The five discs are in separate cardboard envelopes and the booklet has a perceptive essay by John Steane. The majority of these recordings are classics in the same division as those by Caruso, Schipa and Gigli. None of those three could be mistaken for each other, nor can Björling. He was at least as distinctively personal as any of them – or any other tenor for that matter. Golden stuff, all of it!

Complete tracklist : Jussi Bjorling – The Swedish Caruso