Copenhagen Concert 1959
We had hardly reckoned on some previously unknown recordings with Jussi Björling would crop up. The record companies have the last few years hovered radio archives and other sources on anything imaginable. But then there pops up a tape in excellent sound quality, recorded in Copenhagen on 15 October 1959 in the then brand new Falkoner Centret – a concert hall with superlative acoustics seating 2000 listeners. In the venue there was also a state-of-the-art recording equipment, which was employed to record most of what was happening there – and then the material was hidden in the archives – until now.
The concert took place less than a year before Jussi Björling’s demise on 9 September 1960 and only a couple of weeks earlier he had a heart condition during the recording of Madama Butterfly in Rome. Thus it could be expected that he was in less than top shape, but there is little here that indicates that. In a few places his fortes can sound a bit strained but his breath control is as superb as earlier and his legato singing is exemplary. The beauty of his silvery voice is unmistakable – it is the Jussi we know from so many outstanding recordings.
The sound quality of the recording is first class, considering the age, clear and dynamic. Seth B. Winner had an excellent basic material at his disposal, but he has adjusted some deviations in volume and removed disturbing noises like coughs and squeaks. The piano is balanced a mite closer than the voice, but this is no drawback. It makes us experience Bertil Bokstedt’s elegant phrasing and exquisite timing. He is a god listener as well as a promoter – a perfect accompanist.
We recognise the repertoire. Here are many of the songs he recorded in 1952 for the LP Jussi Björling in Song: Brahms`s Die Mainacht, Liszt’s Es muss ein Wunderbares sein, Wolf’s Verborgenheit, Schubert’s Die Forelle and Die böse Farbe, the latter from Die schöne Müllerin and for the umpteenth time one thinks “What a pity he didn’t study the whole song cycle!” These are songs that were close to him and you hear that on the warmth, the insight and the lovable phrasing. The inward, eternally beautifully sung Es muss ein Wunderbares sein gives rise to graceful shudders and the scaled down final phrases are overwhelming.
The Nordic songs are just as dear and agreeable: P-B’s Jungfrun under lind, Alfvén’s Skogen sover, sung so weightlessly beautifully at pianissimo – don’t wake ‘em – Sibelius’ Demanten på marssnön and Säv, säv, susa. Here Bokstedt’s sensitive accompaniment contributes to intensify the mourning song about the unhappy Ingalill who died in the waves, and Jussi’s voice trembles from empathy in the final phrase “Waves, waves, lap!”. Grieg’s En svane and En drøm are permeated by a rare intensity, and it was only such a pity he couldn’t sing Alfvén’s setting of Tove Ditlevsen’s Så tag mit hjerte, the only song in Danish in his repertoire and recorded in the studio only a good half.year earlier. The music was left on the piano in Jussi’s apartment in Stockholm! Which hardly could have made him very jolly. But of this discord you notice nothing in his singing.
As was his wont, Jussi Björling dilutes the song repertoire with some opera arias. Tamino’s first aria from Die Zauberflöte, was his warming up number, and he always sang Mozart in Swedish. Bizet’s Flower Song was placed between the German and the Nordic songs, and here he generates mighty energy. Come un bel di di Maggio from Andrea Chenier was another favourite aria, and again he sings with impeccable legato. What a pity he did neither Don José nor Chenier on stage. Tosti’s Ideale and Richard Strauss’ Zueignung round off this audibly appreciated concert, which we now, after 56 years, can enjoy in excellent sound.
There is a substantial bonus as well: The Voice of Firestone from 10 March 1952. It was issued not long ago as a filler for Immortal Performances’ restored Il trovatore from MET 1941. The difference, besides Seth Winner’s transfer has a somewhat stronger out-signal and thus a little wider dynamics, is that Richard Caniell at Immortal Performances has cleaned up a bit and taken away a lot of the opening commercials and shortened Hugh James’ announcements. Otherwise one can note that Jussi´s voice seven years earlier was lighter and somewhat freer, that he makes the best out of Mrs Firestone’s obligatory opening and concluding melodies, that Nessun dorma is sung with real glow, that Tosti’s L’alba separa salla luce l’ombra - written for Caruso – sounds excellent and that Speaks’ Sylvia and Victor Herbert’s Neapolitan Love Song are spoiled by a glutinous chorus – but Jussi sings well.
The 24-page-booklet is a further bonus with among other things a detailed historical account by Harald Henrysson of Jussi BJörling’s appearances in Denmark, during 28 years, i.e. all of his adult career. Lavishly illustrated. The vocal expert Stephen Hastings, author of the book The Björling Sound, contributes a profound analysis of the Copenhagen concert, full of insight as usual, and there are also contributions by John H. Haley, Dan Shea and Seth B. Winner. A quality issue, in other words. Should be in every Jussi Björling collection.
The CD (JSP RECORDS JSP682) is available from:
PO Box 1584
London N3 3NW