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Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut
Manon – Hjördis Schymberg (soprano)
Des Grieux – Jussi Björling (tenor)
Lescaut – Hugo Hasslo (baritone)
Geronte – Arne Tyrén (bass)
Edmondo – Lars Billengren (tenor)
Dance Master – Arne Ohlson (tenor)
Lamp Lighter – Kolbjörn Höiseth (tenor)
Inn Keeper – Sven-Erik Jacobsson (bass)
Sergeant – Georg Svedenbrant (bass)
Sea Captain – Bo Lundborg (bass)
Madrigal Singer – Margareta Bergström (mezzo-soprano)
Royal Swedish Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Nils Grevillius
rec. Live, 1 November 1959, Royal Swedish Opera, Stockholm
Bonus Björling recordings (seen end)
IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD1110-2 [77:18 + 78:27]

Manon Lescaut seems to be on the carpet just now. In June this year, Ralph Moore issued his survey of 16 recordings of it, at about the same time Pristine released a refurbished version of the live Mitropoulos recording from 1956 with Jussi Björling – enthusiastically reviewed by Ralph, myself and Paul Steinson – and here now comes an even later recording with Björling, set down live at a performance at the Royal Swedish Opera on 1 November 1959, less than a year before the tenor’s untimely decease on 9 September 1960. In those days performances regularly were sung in Swedish, but Björling, who appeared as guest and never learnt the role of Des Grieux in Swedish, sang it in the original Italian. He made his debut in the small role as lamp lighter on 21 July 1930 at age 19, but never advanced to Des Grieux during his time in Stockholm. Not until the Metropolitan mounted a new production in 1949 did he study the role. The premiere was on 23 November 1949 and a fortnight later, on 10 December it was broadcast at a Saturday matinée, a recording of which is available on Naxos. In 1954 he recorded it under studio conditions in Rome for RCA Victor, and thus there are consequently no less than four different recordings on the market with Jussi Björling as Des Grieux. The 1949 recording is good with Dorothy Kirsten a good Manon, but the sound is less than competitive. Not that the studio recording is in hi-fi class either but it is cleaner. The Mitropoulos in its latest incarnation in XR restoration and ‘Ambient Stereo’ has a fuller sound and a vision of ‘being there’ and Licia Albanese sounds younger and fresher than in the studio two years earlier and the conducting wins hands down. So where does the Stockholm version stand?

The great hang-up is no doubt the double language issue: Björling sings his role in Italian, the rest of the cast sing their roles in Swedish. By all means, Swedish is a good language for singing, rich on vowels as it is, and Swedish speakers probably won’t mind. Several of the singers also articulate exceptionally well, in particular Hugo Hasslo’s Lescaut and Arne Tyrén’s Geronte. But when you are used to the Italian text and when Swedish is a foreign language for you it certainly jars. But it would be a pity to avoid the recording for that reason. Most opera lovers will want this issue for Björling and he is certainly in excellent form – as he is on the three other sets as well. He sings Tra voi belle (CD 1 tr. 4) with glow and youthful timbre, and his real set piece, Donna non vidi mai (CD 1 tr. 6), is arguable his best rendition of the four with beautiful legato and, again, youthful glow. The problem with the original tape was that, according to the restorer Richard Caniell, there was a gap of nine seconds in the middle of this aria, which Caniell has filled out with the corresponding portion from the 1956 Met broadcast. According to some sources, the problem had previously been solved by inserting the complete aria from the commercial recording. Anyway the result here is totally natural, and in an emergency situation like this some cheating must be accepted. His glorious singing at the end of Act II only confirms that his vocal and dramatic capacity was undiminished, even though unanimous sources bear witness to that his physical health was far from tip-top on this occasion. Björling’s capacity as a dramatic artist is probably best shown in the high-strung final pages of the Le Havre act (CD 2 tr. 5), something I more than half-a-century realised when I bought excerpts from the commercial recording. Here, in the heat of a live occasion, it is even more tangible. And the final act, with Manon and Des Grieux alone in the wilderness in Louisiana, so touching in the desperation of the two youngsters, whose one-time happiness ends in disaster.

I’m less enamoured about Hjördis Schymberg’s Manon. She was Björling’s favourite soprano partner, but here when she was past 50, her voice was beginning to sound frail and when attempting to sound girlish she occasionally gives the impression of an overgrown soubrette – slightly parodic. But in the set pieces, In quelle trine morbide (CD 1 tr. 14) the glowing finale of act II and the whole of act IV, including the tragic Sola, perduta, abbandonata (CD 2 tr. 11) she grows to the occasion and leaves a wholly satisfactory impression, even though hers always was a lyrical voice with easy coloratura, rather than a lirico spinto, which Puccini intended.

I have already mentioned Hugo Hasslo and Arne Tyrén, the former almost too noble sounding for the meek Lescaut, the latter an expressive Geronte, less buffa parodic than many others and thus more dangerous. Lars Billengren is a good Edmondo, singing with admirable lightness, and Kolbjörn Höiseth, who later had an international career in dramatic roles, here the year after his debut at the Royal Opera, sings beautifully lyrically in Jussi Björling’s debut role almost 30 years earlier, the lamp lighter in Act III.

In the pit is Björling’s favourite conductor, Nils Grevillius, who followed the tenor’s during all of his career and conducted the orchestra for most of his Swedish recordings, from his first in 1929 to his very last recorded concert only a few week before he passed away. The last track of the bonus numbers is from that occasion. He paces the score well, occasionally on the slow side, but holds the performance together admirably. Richard Caniell’s restoration is convincing and even though the sound can’t quite compete with studio recordings of the same vintage, it is eminently listenable. We have to be grateful for his endeavours to create this worthy tribute to one of the greatest tenors of all times. As a bonus, which further enhances the importance of this issue, we are treated to ten numbers from the last decade of Jussi Björling’s life. There are no additions to his recorded repertoire, but several of the recordings are not easy to get hold of. What they have in common is the glorious singing of Jussi and it is always with a large portion of melancholy one listens to Kuda, kuda from Eugene Onegin – sung in Swedish – from his very last recorded concert. In the opera Lensky sings the aria in the morning, just before a planned duel with his friend Onegin, and Lensky has a premonition of that he will die in the duel. With hindsight we know that five weeks after this concert Björling died in a heart attack. Some of the bonus numbers have been proposed by Norwegian Björling-fan Kristian Krogholm, a man with encyclopaedic knowledge of Björling’s life and inveterate collector of his recordings. He has written liner notes on the bonus numbers in the accompanying booklet, which also contains Stefan Johansson’s reminiscences of the actual Manon Lescaut performance, which he saw when he was twelve; a brief Memorial of Jussi Björling by Richard Caniell, a detailed synopsis with cue points, and recording notes by Caniell.

This is a quality product in every respect, which no lover of Jussi Björling or of classy singing at all, can live without. Whether it is the best all-round recording of Björling’s four Manon Lescaut is more debatable but it is ample proof that he was still at the top of his trade to the very end of his career.

Göran Forsling

Bonus

Palladium, London 4 January 1959
13. Commentary [0:48]
14. PUCCINI Tosca: E lucevan le stele [3:41]
15. MASCAGNI Cavalleria rusticana: Mamma, quel vino [4:06]
Ivor Newton (piano)
Hollywood Bowl 23 August 1949
16. HANDEL Serse: Frondi tenere … Ombra mai fu [4:35]
17. PUCCINI Turandot: Nessun dorma [3:31]
Södersjukhuset (Southern Hospital, Stockholm) Recital 20 December 1954
18. WAGNER Lohengrin: In fernem Land [5:11]
19. PETERSON-BERGER: När jag för mig själv [2:41]
20. NORDQVIST: Till havs [2:45]
21. ADAM: Cantique de Noel [4:26]
Harry Ebert (piano)
Stockholm Concert 3 October 1952
22. SIBELIUS: Var det en dröm [2:30]
Swedish Radio Orchestra/Sten Frykberg
Gothenburg Concert 5 August 1960
23. TCHAIKOVSKY Eugene Onegin: Kuda, kuda (Lenski’s aria) [6:39]
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra/Nils Grevillius



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