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Jussi Björling (tenor) A Tribute
rec. 1937-1959 IMMORTAL PERFORMANCES IPCD1135-6 [6 CDs: 450:29]
Let me say at once that this is a magnificent tribute to Jussi Björling, issued in connection with the celebrations of his 110th anniversary in February 2021. One would have thought that the enthusiasts had already scraped the bottom of the barrel and found what remnants there were, which could be restored to acceptably listenable status, but here Richard Caniell has come up with some highly interesting material that has only been available on obscure LP issues in execrable sound. Of main interest are of course the three complete performances from Jussi’s last season at the MET in November and December 1959, less than a year before he passed away at age 49 in September 1960.
Richard Caniell didn’t have an easy task when he set about to make the Cavalleria rusticana listenable. In his notes he delineates the problems. The performance was recorded with a single microphone in the stage wing and it was afflicted with ’excessive distortion’, recording balance had to be corrected, some notes were so overloaded that they had to be replaced with corresponding notes from other recordings with Jussi. In fact the restoration is a patchwork and it is almost incredible that he managed to put all things together to an end product that feels like a unity. He has retained a lot of applause and ovation and thus created a feeling of being there, and since this was a very special evening this adds a lot to the experience. One can almost breathe the magic atmosphere, the electricity that ignites Jussi and Giuiletta Simionato. Turiddu was a role that always drew the best out of him as an actor and since Santuzza was one of Simionato’s best roles, this became a meeting between two giants. She recorded the role twice and in both she was superb, even though she didn’t have co-singers of her calibre in the old Cetra recording. Jussi also recorded the role twice, but here he surpasses both. It has to be admitted that in spite of Caniell’s efforts the sound is still primitive and nowhere near what could have been achieved in a studio at that time – not even in a broadcast from the same year, which we can hear in the Faust performance in this box.
But with some good will one can listen through the aural deficiencies, and once one has been caught buy the intensity of the performance one forgets about the surrounding and focuses on the drama. A first glimpse of that occurs during the prelude. There is distortion, the balance is bad, but suddenly we hear the harp, closely miked, and then Jussi’s voice – distant of course, but he sings his Siciliana to Lola behind the curtain, and his voice glows! Violent applause of course that drenches the orchestra, but that’s typical of the era. The Met audiences behaved really badly, which we can hear again and again during all three operas. There isn’t one single postlude that is allowed to be heard!
The chorus has an important role in this opera and it isn’t easy to decide how well they sing but the standard is definitely much higher than it was ten years earlier. We catch a glimpse of Simionato when she enters, Thelma Votipka’s Mamma Lucia plays her cards well, of course. She sang the role more than 70 times and is still the woman who has performed most often at the Met – 1422 performances. Walter Cassel delivers Alfio’s aria swiftly and with healthy ring on the top notes, and Simionato’s Voi lo sapete is great. Then: enter Jussi and the ovations interrupt the action. After almost a minute the conductor has to start the intro from the beginning and now sparks begin to fly between the contracting parties. It’s like a thunderstorm, temporarily cooled down when the flirtatious appears in the shape of young Rosalind Elias. But thunderstorms tend to return, now even more intense, leading to tumultuous ovations – deservedly so! Jussi runs out but Alfio lies in wait in the wings and a third thunderstorm comes on. It’s a relief when the intermezzo soothes the feelings and reminds us that Easter Mass is going on in the church upstage.
Back to the carnal reality when the church-goers invade Mamma Lucia’s tavern. Jussi delivers a glorious Viva il vino, then Alfio appears and we all understand what is about to happen. Jussi – sorry Turiddu – takes farewell of his mother and we get so involved through his total identification that we forget the limitations of the sound. He leaves and in a few seconds we hear that horrified shriek ‘Turiddu has been killed!’ One would have wished that the postlude could have been played to the end without interruption, but I can understand the reaction. This must have been a totally overwhelming experience in the theatre and I feel privileged to have been able to, all these years later, experience it through this sound document.
The bonus track is an interesting hybrid. From a performance of Faust at the Royal Opera in Stockholm 1944 some fragmentary recordings have been preserved, among them the Faust aria, which broke off halfway through the aria, and Richard Caniell managed to complete it from the 1951 studio recording on RCA. So halfway through the 33-year-old Jussi’s voice is seamlessly moving over to his 40-year-old self and such is the consistency of his singing that you wouldn’t know it if you weren’t informed.
Mario Cavaradossi was another role that Jussi excelled in. The RCA-recording from 1957 under Erich Leinsdorf with Jussi’s regular Met-colleagues Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren has been highly regarded, and since it was recorded in stereo it has claims to be a worthy reference recording, in particular in Pristine’s newly refurbished version (review), where the sound leaps out of the speakers more lifelike than ever. The live Tosca in this Tribute box can, naturally, not compete with the studio set on sonic grounds, but it is a valuable addition to the Björling discography even so. The technical conditions were not very favourable. It was recorded with a single microphone placed at the proscenium hood and thus next door to the prompter, who consequently became a conspicuous element in the performance, so much so in fact that he should have been included in the cast list. A diligent and conscientious person he certainly was and he managed to pilot Curtis-Verna through a tricky passage in the third act when she went astray. Caniell has however little positive to say about the prompter’s timing and his intrusion in vocal lines and has removed his voice 196 times. This of course implies that phrases are shortened but, as he points out, ‘In no instance did I do this with Björling and only once with Curtis-Verna’. It may be a mixed blessing, but the prompter’s intrusions can certainly be distracting. The sound in general is far superior to the Cavalleria and fully acceptable, I would believe, even to listeners not otherwise familiar with the limitations of historical recordings. A great asset is the conducting of Dimitri Mitropoulos, one of the great conductors of the era, who also conducted an excellent Manon Lescaut with Jussi Björling at the Met in 1956, also recently reissued by Pristine (review) (review). In this Tosca he also combines taut drama with strong feeling for warm lyricism.
The three protagonists are in excellent form. Jussi Björling shines in his two arias and in particular E lucevan le stelle is masterly , beginning almost leisurely, pensively with beautiful legato and holding back until L’ora è fuggito, from where he builds a crescendo culminating in an emotionally charged tanto la vita. He is glorious in the first act duet with Tosca, grandiose in Vittoria! Vittoria! in the second act torture scene and lovingly considerate in the finale, where O dolci mani is delivered with irresistible warmth. American soprano Mary Curtis-Verna is probably rather unknown today, due to the fact that she made very few recordings – but her Aida from 1956 with the young Franco Corelli is a worthy memento of her capacity (review). She had an early career in Italy in the early 1950s which also expanded to Vienna and Munich, before she returned to the US. In 1957 she made her Met debut as Leonora in Il trovatore and she remained there for ten seasons. Born in 1921 she was in her late 30s when she sang this performance of Tosca and was at the height of her powers. She is here a prima donna with youthful freshness, contrasting well with Milanov on the studio recording, who sounds decidedly middle-aged. She sings with glowing tone in the first act duet with Cavaradossi and has the heft to challenge Scarpia in the second act, where she also sings a sensitive Vissi d’arte, shivering with emotions. And Cornell MacNeil is an imposing Scarpia. Born in 1922 he had made his Met-debut in March 1959, so he was a relative newcomer, but he was to remain on the roster for another 28 years, amassing 642 performances. His tone is youthful and sonorous and he can be dangerously ingratiating. Listen to his Tosca divina, la mano mia … on their first encounter. His seductive tone could entangle any female! His satanic side, on the other hand, is just as tangible. Tre sbirri is frightening and in the second act he is formidable. He was quite new to the role when this recording was made but already well inside it and was to hone it further another 90 times. The supporting roles are entrusted to Metropolitan regulars, of whom Lawrence Davidson’s Sacristan is satisfyingly expressive but his precision is often wayward. Blemishes like that or Curtis-Verna’s lapse in the last act are of course sad but they shouldn’t belittle the value of the performance at large.
The third opera, Faust, is a better-known performance, having been previously issued, seemingly more than once. I own it in an excellent remastering by Andrew Rose on Pristine (review). It is from an NBC broadcast and Andrew managed to squeeze it onto two cram-full CDs by cutting out the commentaries from Milton Cross and reduce the applause – but it contains every bar of the music, including the Walpurgis Night scene, which was often cut in the good old days – as a lot more in the last two acts. Richard Caniell refers in his notes to another issue of the same broadcast, where obviously the Walpurgis scene was cut. The scene isn’t one of the best, but it still contains some memorable music and, as Richard correctly says ‘[the listener loses] music Björling sang not otherwise recorded.’ So here we have all the music from this broadcast, plus Milton Cross’s quite extensive commentaries (always a pleasure to listen to) and a substantial helping of applause, which as usual contribute to the feeling of being there. The ovations after Salut! Demeure certainly give you gooseflesh! The sound is really very good, we are spared Peter Brooks’ controversial sets and costumes with a devil in tuxedo and top hat, and we can relax in our domestic armchairs and listen to this marvellous music performed by a good handful of world-class singers.
When it comes to the latter ingredient I take the liberty to quote extensively from my previous review, since what I wrote nine years ago is still valid:
Jussi Björling was a great Faust. I have friends who maintain that he was at his very best in French repertoire. Unfortunately he only retained two French roles when he embarked upon his international career – and neither Faust nor Romeo et Juliette was recorded commercially. We are lucky to have both in good live recordings from the Met, Faust twice. When I reviewed the 1950 Faust some years ago the first paragraph read ‘This 3 CD set contains some of the most glorious tenor singing ever recorded. Buy it!!!’ Here, nine years later, almost to the day, he is still in tremendous shape. He was an extraordinary singer with remarkable stamina. His heart problems had increased during the 1950s and when this performance took place he had less than nine months to live. Even so, there is very little in his singing that reveals weakening health or diminishing vocal ability. He slightly fluffs the very first phrase but after that he is just as magnificent as on the 1950 recording. Once or twice the voice seems marginally heavier but it is, by and large, the same Björling as ever. Those who doubt my judgement need only lend an ear to Quel trouble ... Salut, demeure (CD 4 tr 21-22) the famous cavatina. Whether it surpasses the 1950 recording is open to debate. Maybe the high C is not as free this time, but it is still a reading that must be counted among the best on record. The garden scene (CD 5 tr 7-9) is further evidence that here is a singer still in his prime.
In this scene there is also a magical rapport between Björling and his Marguerite. She is the young Elisabeth Söderström, who had made her Met debut a couple of months earlier as Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro - she was later to become the Contessa. A couple of weeks before the broadcast she sang her first ever Marguerite. She had been Manon Lescaut opposite Björling in Stockholm but this was something much bigger. In her memoirs I min tonart (In My Key) (Bonniers, 1978, not available in English, I believe) she recalls the situation: ‘It was with terror in my heart and on trembling legs that I walked to the theatre that evening: we had had only one run-through with orchestra and sets, I wasn’t sufficiently prepared. I bewailed my distress to Jussi, who looked at me with compassion and answered: ‘Little friend, you have nothing to be afraid of, there aren’t many who demand much of you yet. It is much worse for me; everybody expects to find out whether I am finished or whether I can live up to my reputation.’ Listening to this recording one can conclude that everything worked exactly as it should. Ms Söderström shows her credentials with aplomb in a gloriously sung Jewel aria (CD 5 tr. 4). All through the performance she is in radiant voice and draws a vivid portrait of a character that can seem one-dimensional when sung prettily without proper characterization.
There is even more vocal splendour on offer in this performance. Cesare Siepi repeats his Mephistopheles from the 1950 recording and is as magnificent here. The intervening nine years gave him even more authority and the voice is still in fine fettle. Another stalwart at the Met, Robert Merrill, pours out golden tone that surpasses most of his baritone colleagues. Not the most charismatic of actors, he still manages to invest his portrait of Valentin with power and energy. Mildred Miller is a very fine Siebel and Thelma Votipka is a Marthe to reckon with. All in all this is a performance that should be in every opera lover’s collection.
Besides these three complete works there are some very attractive ‘fillers’ with one common denominator: Jussi Björling in top shape! After the third act of Tosca (CD 3) we hear a charming greeting from Jussi to America, which was transmitted as a calling card for his imminent first journey to the US in the autumn of 1937. He arrived at the end of November and his first assignment was an appearance at Carnegie Hall, broadcast by General Motors. Two favourite arias, Che gelida manina and La donna e mobile and the Santuzza-Turiddu duet from Cavalleria rusticana, the latter sung together with the legendary Austrian soprano Maria Jeritza, 24 years Björling’s senior and at the time nearing the end of her career. Of course it was an honour for Björling to sing with this legend. She had a long life and survived Jussi with almost 22 years.
The fifth concert in the US was also at Carnegie Hall and again it was sponsored by General Motors. Celeste Aida and, as so often during his many recitals during the next twenty years, a Scandinavian song, Land du välsignade, a kind of unofficial Swedish National Anthem.
A radio appearance in Hilversum, Holland in 1939 with surprisingly good sound builds a bridge to his first performance at Covent Garden the same year, when he was Manrico in Il trovatore opposite another legend, Gina Cigna. The sound is distant, Cigna is rather uninterested but Björling is vital, he is lyrically caressing in Ah si, ben mio and muscular in Di quella pira. He appeared several times in London later during his career but Covent Garden had to wait almost 21 years before he returned there in March 1960.
The fifth act of Faust, which opens CD 6, occupies only around 30 minutes of music, which means that there is room for 50 minutes more. This space is filled almost to the point of bursting, with music from two Swedish performances. The first is the complete third act of Tosca from the Stockholm Opera in February 1959. Conductor is the then veteran Nils Grevillius, who conducted most of Björling’s recordings on home-ground, from the early 1930s to the very end. The sound is excellent and it is an early experiment of Swedish Radio with stereo. In the stalls there were evidently some advanced coughers and their efforts were caught with stunning realism during the soft prelude. The poor shepherd boy singing off-stage certainly comes to a disadvantage. He is sung by a young Barbro Ericson – very well – who for several decades was a leading dramatic mezzo-soprano at the Royal Opera. Jussi Björling, singing in Italian, is as usual a beautifully nuanced Cavaradossi and as usual he is at his very best in O dolci mani. His Tosca, sung in Swedish, is the versatile Kjerstin Dellert, a cross-over artist of great merit, at home in jazz, operetta, contemporary music and for many years a much-loved entertainer in Swedish television, often together with Elisabeth Söderström. She is perhaps vocally a little under-dimensioned – she was more of a Musetta than a Mimì – but her Tosca is still a sympathetic character and duet with Björling is very much alive.
More Puccini comes from Jussi’s only guest appearance with another opera company than the Royal Opera on home-ground: Malmö Municipal Theatre in the south of Sweden. This was in September 1957 and also here Jussi sang in Italian while the rest of the ensemble sung in Swedish. At this time practically all operas were sung in the vernacular. The local soprano Ethel Mårtensson had the honour to be Jussi Björling’s partner and she is very good. Born in 1922 she was then in her mid-30s but retired only two years later. Judging from what I hear she should have been able to pursue her career much longer. The chemistry between her and Björling seems good and in particular the death scene is very touching.
This is the conclusion to a goldmine of mostly very rare recordings which add considerably to our knowledge about one of the greatest tenors of the previous century. Richard Caniell has done a great job to make this material available to a wider public. The 6-CD-box comes with two booklets, together comprising almost 80 pages with historical background, synopses, recording notes, biographies and other information plus numerous photos.
Göran Forsling Contents
CD 1 [78:08] Pietro MASCAGNI (1863 – 1945)
1 – 25. Cavalleria rusticana
Santuzza – Giulietta Simionato
Turiddu – Jussi Björling
Lola – Rosalind Elias
Alfio – Walter Cassel
Lucia – Thelma Votipka
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Nino Verchi
Rec 16 November 1959
BONUS: Charles GOUNOD (1818 – 1893)
26. Faust: Salut! Demeur [6:03]
Rec Royal Opera, Stockholm 25 September 1944
CD 2 [78:30] Giacomo PUCCINI (1858 – 1924)
1 – 22. Tosca (Act I and Act II beginning)
CD 3 [75:22]
1 – 10. Tosca (Act II continued and Act III)
Tosca – Mary Curtis-Verna
Mario Cavaradossi – Jussi Björling
Scarpia – Cornell Mac Neil
Sacristan – Lawrence Davidson
Spoletta – Paul Franke
Angelotti – Norman Scott
Sciarrone – Osie Hawkins
Jailer – Roald Reitan
Shepherd – George Ryan
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Dimitri Mitropoulos
Rec 21 November 1959
11. Björling’s greeting to America [0:30]
First Concert in the U.S.
General Motors – Carnegie Hall 28 November 1937
12. Commentary [0:59]
13. Giacomo PUCCINI La Bohème: Che gelida manina [4:36]
14. Commentary [0:11]
15. Giuseppe VERDI (1813 – 1901) Rigoletto: La donna è mobile [2:12]
16. Commentary [0:27]
17. Pietro MASCAGNI Cavalleria Rusticana: Slightly abridged version of Santuzza-Turiddu duet with Maria Jeritza [5:10]
Fifth Concert in the U.S.
General Motors – Carnegie Hall 19 December 1937
18. Giuseppe VERDI Aida: Se quel guerrier … Celeste Aida [4:32]
19. Commentary [0:19]
20. Ragnar ALTHÉN (1883 – 1961)Land du välsignade [2:47]
Hilversum, Holland, 8 June 1939
21. Charles GOUNOD Faust: Salut! Demeure (sung in Swedish) [4:50]
22. Giacomo PUCCINI La Bohème: Che gelida manina [4:34] Giuseppe VERDI Il trovatore
Act III, Scene 2
Covent Garden 12 May 1939
23. Quale d’armi fragor (Leonora – Gina Cigna) [2:09]
24. Ah si, ben mio [3:03]
25. Manrico! (Ruiz – Octave Dua) [0:44]
26. Di quella pira [2:12]
CD 4 [66:56] Charles GOUNOD 1 – 22. Faust (Act I, Act II and Act III, beginning)
CD 5 [71:54]
1 – 20. Faust (Act III continued and Act IV)
CD 6 [79:39]
1 – 9. Faust (Act V)
Faust – Jussi Björling
Marguerite – Elisabeth Söderström
Méphistophélès – Cesare Siepi
Valentin – Robert Merrill
Siebel – Mildred Miller
Marthe – Thelma Votipka
Wagner – Roald Reitan
Metropolitan Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Jean Paul Morel
Rec 19 December 1959
Giacomo PUCCINI Tosca
10 -16. Act III, complete
Royal Opera Stockholm, 12 February 1959
Björling sings in Italian; all others in Swedish
Tosca – Kjerstin Dellert
Mario Cavaradossi – Jussi Björling
Jailer – Lennart Carlén
Royal Swedish Opera Orchestra / Nils Grevillius
Giacomo PUCCINI La Bohème, excerpts from Acts III and IV
Malmö Municipal Theatre 30 September 1957
Björling sings in Italian, all others in Swedish
Rodolfo – Jussi Björling
Mimì – Ethel Mårtensson
Marcello – Nils Bäckström
Schaunard – Arne Hasselblad
Colline – Bengt von Knorring
Musetta – Astri Herseth
Malmö Opera Orchestra / Sten-Åke Axelson
17. Act III: Mimì è tanto malata [3:29]
18. Donde lieta uscì [3:14]
19. Dunque è proprio finita [2:37]
20. Act IV: Sono andati [2:31]
21. Tornò al nido [4:25]
22. Che ha detto il medico? [2:47]
Jussi Björling (tenor), other soloists, Choruses and Orchestras