Jussi Bjørling – A collection of Swedish 78s.

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.

Jon Vickers – Italian Opera Arias

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Now this is great singing.

In the 1993 notes that accompany this re-issue of the one recital record Jon Vickers ever made, Vickers says,

At the time of the Italian Arias recording the field of opera was a totally different world than today. One sought to prove oneself worthy of association with the opera houses, general administartors, conductors, producers and singers one admired – even was in awe of. There was a humbling consciousness of the great history of places like the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala, Bayreuth, Vienna and Salzburg. Emphasis was upon delving as deeply as possible into the psychological depths of the text illuminated by the genius of the composer’s music. To dare to indulge any particular personal ability was to invite derision from colleagues and thunderous disapproval by public and press alike as being in bad taste and imposing of oneself upon a great work of art.

To be honest, I’ve listened to plenty of live performances from those days when bad taste and personal indulgence brings the house down, but his statement does give you a snapshot into the way the man worked, of his seriousness and dedication to his art.

This recital disc was recorded at the same time as his first recording of Otello under Tullio Serafin, when his ony Wagnerian role was Siegmund, and you were more likely to hear him as Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Radames, Canio or Don Carlo. Later of course he want on to tackle Tristan and Parsifal, though he never sang Siegfried, and he dropped out of scheduled performances of Tannhäuser at Covent Garden, due to his religious scruples, saying he could not empathise with the character and that, in any case, the opera was blasphemous in character.

First impressions when listening to this disc are of the sheer size of the voice, and the power – a power that can be reined back to a merest pianissimo, then unleashed at will, like an organist pulling out all the stops. The other is intensity. Whether singing gently or loudly, there is a concentration and intensity that makes each short aria into a mini monodrama, and an ability to focus in on the meaning of each word and note. Nothing is taken for granted, nothing thrown away.

From a purely vocal point of view, it was still a very beautiful instrument back in 1961, and an aria like Cielo e mar is sung not only with golden tone, but with a true sense of wonder, and a way of pulling in and out of full voice that never destroys the long legato line.

Where many Italian tenors will add extraneous sobs and aspirates to indicate emotion, particularly in an aria like Federico’s Lament from L’Arlesiana, Vickers achieves an even deeper vein of emotion by never straying from the written notes, but simply (as if it was simple) intensifying his sound. In this he ressembles Callas, whom he revered so much having been Giasone to her Medea on many occasions.

One of the stand out tracks on this recital for me is Chénier’s Un di all’azzurro spazio delivered with mounting passion, but also somehow giving us a sense of the intellectual in the man. Canio suffers like no other, and yet he doesn’t have to break down in sobs at the end to make us feel it. His Otello developed into one of the towering creations of his, or any other, age, but even here, with the arias taken out of context, he conveys all the man’s pain and suffering.

Listening to this recital today at a distance of some years has been a peculiarly emotional experience. Jon Vickers was, and remains, unique, and we are unlikely to hear his ilk again.

Callas as Nedda in Pagliacci

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Recorded 12-17 June 1954, Teatro alla Scala, Milan

Producer: Walter Legge, Balance Engineer: Robert Beckett

Nedda was the first of four roles Callas recorded in the studio, but never sang on stage, the others being Mimi, Manon and Carmen. Pagliacci is really the tenor’s opera, and one can imagine the role would have held little interest for her on stage, though, as is her wont, she makes a great impression in a role one wouldn’t readily associate with her.

Back in the 50s, Nedda was usually played by a light-voiced soubrette, who, if she provided any characterisation at all, would play her as a two-dimensional heartless little minx, so how like Callas that she should look inside the music and find more facets to Nedda’s personality.

Her very first words Confusa io son strike a note of fear, justified  when she sings of Canio’s temper (brutale com egli’e) and note the accent she gives to the word brutale. She shrugs off her fear, but in her singing of the ensuing aria, with its paean to freedom, it is not difficult to understand that here is a young woman bursting with life but trapped in a loveless marriage with a man prone to violence.

The scene with Tonio, like all Callas’s collaborations with Gobbi, bristles with drama and life. Here it would seem is another man trying to subjugate her to his will, but her relationship with Tonio is different. Here she has the upper hand. At first mockingly dismissive, she taunts him until he responds with violence; but here too she retains the upper hand, lashing out both vocally (Miserabile!) and physically with the whip. Left alone she expresses her distaste with a voice dripping with loathing, only to change in an instant when she lovingly sings the single word Silvio as her lover makes his appearance.

The duet with Silvio is erotically charged, suffused with warmth and passion, then in the ensuing confrontation with Canio, defiant in the face of fear, her voice hardens again.  Is there a suggestion here that this is ground they have been over before?

Also masterful is the way she uses a different, whiter sound for Colombina, and only in the final stages of the opera in her ultimate refusal to submit to Canio does she return to full voice, riding the orchestra with a defiance that goads Canio into his final act of murder. There are parallels here with Callas’s Carmen.

Di Stefano does well as Canio, though I can’t help feeling that such a Nedda really needed a more psychologically complex foil, along the lines of someone like Vickers, or Domingo in his later portrayals, not that either of them were around at the time of the recording of course. Nonetheless, though some might think him a shade light-voiced for the role, Di Stefano is a very effective Canio, singing brilliantly off the words, his diction, as usual, exemplary.

Gobbi, on the other hand is superb as Tonio, as is Panerai as an ardent Silvio, and Monti, much more than a comprimario, makes an excellent Beppe. Serafin is a relatively unassuming presence. He doesn’t do anything wrong, but nowhere is his conducting as revelatory as it often was in Verdi.

Pagliacci probably wouldn’t rank high on any list of essential Callas recordings (certainly not on mine) and I’d have to be honest and admit it’s not one of my favourite operas. Neither the character nor the music really call on Callas’s greater musical gifts, yet, without stage experience,  she creates a rounded character, and, with a superior cast, this recording has held its own for over 50 years now.