These two CDs gather together most of the 78s the young Bjørling made in his native Sweden between 1933 and 1949, the earliest made when he was a budding tenor of twenty-two.
Most are vocal gems, but one or two (the rather loud and penny plain Je crois entendre encore, and the unpoetic duet from La Boheme with Anna- Lisa Bjørling on the second disc, for instance) are less than great.
The voice itself was a magnificent one, no doubt about it, with a silvery purity throughout its range, the high notes free and easy; just listen to his joyfully ebullient 1938 performance of Offenbach’s Au mont Ida from La belle Hélène, sung in Swedish, but with terrific swagger, the top notes flying out like lasers. From a few years ealier we have a plaintively sensitive performance of Valdimir’s Cavatina from Borodin’s Prince Igor, the legato line beautifully held, his mezza voce finely spun out. Also from 1938 we have a thrilling performance of the Cujus animam from Rossini’s Stabat mater, with a free and easy top D flat at the end, and it is prinicpall for Italian and French opera that Bjørling will be remembered and there are plenty of examples here of his wonderfully musical performances in that genre.
We find him ideal in Verdi, Donizetti and Puccini alike, in Myerbeer, in Massenet and in Gounod (a glorious rendering of Faust’s Salut, demeure). Some regret the absence of a true Italianate tone in the Italian items, but he will never resort to sobs and aspirates to express emotion, and, personally, I find his comparative restraint very attractive. It is true, he is not always imaginative with his phrasing, and nowhere will you get the kind of psychological introspection you would hear in a performance by someone like Vickers, but his singing is always musical, and of course there is a great deal of pleasure to be had from the voice itself, which Italianate or not, is a thing of great beauty.
Some of the very best of these 78 recordings are included on Volume 1, stand out items for me being the aforementioned Faust aria, his wonderfully musical and sensitive Ah si, ben mio from Il Ttovatore, and his poetic, but thrilling version of Nessun dorma from Turandot. There is also plenty to treasure in Volume 2, which includes the Offenbach and Borodin, but also a sensitvely prayerful Ingemisco from the Verdi Requiem, Des Grieux’s lovely Dream from Manon sung with liquid, honeyed tone (his ardent Ah, fuyez is on the first disc), and his poetic Cielo e mar, from La Gioconda.
The second disc finishes with a couple of unexpected examples of his work in Lieder, a gorgeously lyrical Beethoven Adelaide, and a beautifully restrained and rapt account of Strauss’s Morgen.
Anyone who loves the tenor voice and gloriously musical and sensitive singing (not always the same thing) should have these recordings in their collections.