A new Jussi Björling recording, 57 years later

The headline isn’t a mistake nor a figure of speech.

Swedish tenor Jussi Björling is one of my favourite singers.  As a child, it was his recordings of the great arias and duets that I usually encountered first, often spoiling me for any other singer.  In addition to his unparalleled operatic output he created a wonderful body of song performances, often songs from Scandanavia that I’ve never heard sung by anyone else.

The immortal voice came from a mortal.  I came to discover his pluses and minuses –as with any artist—as I grew up.  While the tone was stunningly beautiful, I heard critiques suggesting that he was better on record than in person given his limitations as an actor.  Sometimes his pronunciation showed an accent (for example the Italian word “ciel” often sounded like “shell” rather than “chell”), even though this was a singer who performed in many languages  (the CD includes the usual German, French and Italian, but also Swedish and Norwegian).  Note that he sang in a transitional period, when many regional houses still sang everything in the local language (for example, he had learned Tamino in Swedish and never learned it in German because it wasn’t a role he sang internationally), whereas by the time of his retirement most operas were being done in the original language.  He had a habit of sometimes singing higher notes a fraction of a tone sharp, an effect that I found exciting even if it’s not strictly accurate, and bothers some listeners.

And he died in 1960.

How then can I properly appreciate the magical gift of a newly discovered performance, released for the first time in 2016?  October 15th 1959 was the date of Björling’s recital in Falkoner Centret Concert Hall, Copenhagen, one of the first events in a brand-new facility.  The precious tape of this concert was recently discovered, restored, and now has been released fifty-seven years later for the first time in cooperation with Jussi Björling societies in Sweden, UK and America.  While the recording includes a twenty-four page booklet, the song texts aren’t included but can be found instead on the website of the Swedish Jussi Björling Society with translations (although a couple are missing, possibly because there were late changes in the CD).    The recording concludes with a bonus Voice of Firestone broadcast from 1952, an additional seventeen minutes or so, pushing the total to over sixty-seven minutes in total (the Copenhagen recital comprising almost fifty minutes).

Part of the booklet is the engineer’s explanation as to why these never came to light before: that both the broadcast recording (from 16” lacquer coated discs, exhibiting crackle and disc noise) and the Copenhagen recital recording (on reel-to-reel tape, including dropouts, low-end bumping (bias) noises plus audience coughs) were unserviceable without digital enhancements (NB the re-furbished Voice of Firestone broadcast has previously been made available on an Immortal Performances release of a 1941 Il Trovatore from the Met, and I think I’ve heard it before with its original rough sound).

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Here’s the list of tracks on the CD:

The Copenhagen Oct 15th recital, Jussi Björling with Bertil Bokstedt piano:

1: Mozart: Die Zauberflöte: Dies bildnis ist bezaubernd schön, (sung in Swedish Ja, detta är en ängels bild)

2: Brahms: Die Mainacht

3: Liszt: Es muss ein Wunderbares sein

  1. Wolf: Verborgenheit

5: Schubert: Die Forelle

6: Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin: Die böse Farbe

7: Bizet: Carmen: La fleur que tu m’avais jetée (Flower Song)

8: Björling announces a Peterson-Berger song instead of the originally programmed Alfvén song.

9: Petersen-Berger: Jungfrun under lind

10: Alfvén: Skogen sover

11: Sibelius: Demanten på marssnön

12: Sibelius: Säv, säv, susa  

13: Grieg: En svane

14: Grieg: Ein Traum (sung in Norwegian as En drøm)

15: Giordano: Andrea Chenier: Come un bel dì di maggio

16: Tosti: Ideale

17: Richard Strauss: Zueignung

The Voice of Firestone from March 10, 1952 with the Voice of Firestone Orchestra & Chorus, Howard Barlow, Conductor

18: Opening announcements & Firestone: If I Could Tell You

19: Announcements

20: Speaks: Sylvia (with Chorus)

21: Announcements

22: Puccini: Turandot: Nessun dorma

23: Announcements

24: Tosti: L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra

25: Announcements

26: Herbert: The Princess Pat: Neapolitan Love Song (with Chorus)

27: Announcements

28: Firestone: In My Garden and concluding announcements

I think this is an important CD for a number of reasons, that will reveal itself to me in the years to come as I listen incessantly.  Our habits have changed possibly due to shifts in fashion or scholarship, taking us in different directions, so it’s marvelous to hear a singer going back and forth between opera arias and lieder, sometimes bringing the same interpretive approach to bear on both.  His Flower Song is more like lieder than opera, in its remarkable changes of pace and tone, a phenomenally psychological reading unlike anything you’d hear in an opera house.   And although he was only a few weeks removed from the hospital –having had heart problems during the recording of Madama Butterfly earlier the same year—we aren’t easily able to discern any evidence, no signs of compromise.

Several of these are the most perfect realization of a particular piece that I have ever heard (although in the case of the Scandinavian songs, the only other versions are by Björling).

  • “Säv, säv susa” and “Skogen sover” sound more delicate and vulnerable than ever, the soft head-voice fluid yet supported, astonishing to reconcile with some of the powerfully macho sounds in the same fifteen minutes of singing
  • While this “Zueignung” seems to be a bit of a tug of war with pianist Bokstedt (possibly because the singer didn’t have the same wind & stamina we encounter in other recordings, especially that wonderful concert recording from 1960, where the last note goes on so powerfully) I was struck by the lucid intelligence of this trouper, coping boldly with his limitations.
  • This is the first time I’ve ever heard “Die Forelle” sung by someone known to be an avid fisherman, a playful interpretation unlike any I’ve heard.

This recording isn’t just for Jussi fans, but anyone who enjoys good singing and beautiful music.  You can find the CD by going to the Swedish Björling society website ,  then clicking on “Shop” in the menu at the left of the page.  As far as I know you won’t find this in record stores, making this a one-of-a-kind gift for your opera-loving friends / family members. They’ll love you for it.

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