JUSSI BJÖRLING: Copenhagen concert 1959

SKIVRECENSION: This concert was discovered only recently: 50 minutes in very good mono sound documenting Björling’s last concert in Denmark, a country where he had sung more than 60 concerts and opera performances beginning already in 1931 when he was just 20. No other live Danish recordings of Björling survive, and only three other full-length song recitals – all from the US.

This is a review for The Record Collector (http://www.therecordcollector.org/) which was published in a somewhat abbreviated version in its September 2016 issue (Vol.61 No.3), p.199-200. There has now been a second issue from the tape collection mentioned at the end of the review: JSP 683 devoted to Marian Anderson’s 1961 Copenhagen concert, plus her concert in front of the Lincoln Memorial 1939.
Complete concert at Falkonercentret, Copenhagen, 15 October 1959: 16 arias and songs, with Bertil Bokstedt, pf. And bonus: complete Voice of Firestone broadcast 10 March 1952: 6 arias and songs plus announcements.
JSP records (www.jsprecords.com) JSP 682   28 tracks	68 mins.

By Nils-Göran Olve

He is in exceptionally good voice, not least if we remember that he had to be hospitalized for his heart condition during his final operatic recording just a few weeks earlier (Madama Butterfly for EMI in Rome), and would die from it less than a year later.

During that year he would return twice to the US for his final performances at the Met and the San Francisco Opera, and he would sing in opera in Stockholm and London, and several more concerts. The context for the recital is given in the exceptionally detailed annotations by Harald Henrysson, Stephen Hastings and others that together with 15 illustrations make up the 24-page booklet – valuable in itself for us Jussi fans.

Listening to this concert, we should remember how the tenor was a popular favourite in the Scandinavian countries (and to some extent also in the US) – not only among operagoers, but a household name for anyone listening to radio. In Stockholm and Copenhagen, he appeared almost every summer at the outdoor amusement parks (Gröna Lund and Tivoli). Commercial US broadcasts (like the bonus material here) and nine preserved 25-minute Gröna Lund concerts exhibit a similar mix of repertoire, ranging from German Lieder and operatic arias to popular songs. Such programmes were not uncommon in those days, when Björling like his Met colleagues toured the US earning more money than from their operatic roles.

The Falkoner Centre is a hall now used for conferences that seats about 2,000 people. In 1959 it was new, and this recording was made by the hall management. It seems numerous such tapes were rediscovered recently and bought by an American, John H. Haley, and the same label (whose first ‘classical’ release this is) has already released some Judy Garland material from there. Seth Winner made his usual excellent job with the restauration. For a live recording of this kind it offers a very credible perspective between singer and piano.

There are no “new” items on the programme, and it is somewhat shorter than the similar concerts with Björling that we know from Carnegie Hall and New Orleans. This is partly because the tenor only sings two encores. According to a story told by his accompanist, Björling wanted to sing more but his wife Anna-Lisa had forgotten to pack the music for some songs. Bokstedt and Anna-Lisa did not dare tell this, hoping that Jussi would select other items. But of course he asked for two of these particular songs as his third encore, and when Bokstedt could not play any of them Jussi ended the concert.

Jussi Björling, Copenhagen Concert 1959, JSP RECORDS JSP682
Jussi Björling, Copenhagen Concert 1959,

Up to that point, he must have been very satisfied with Bokstedt’s playing, as he breathes with the singer in a way I don’t feel Björling’s constant American companion Frederick Schauwecker does. Bokstedt’s playing is more refined than in the Gröna Lund concerts which he may now be remembered for (with one of Decca’s Birgit Nilsson recitals where he conducts). He went on to become Göran Gentele’s successor as head of the Stockholm Opera in the 1970s when Gentele was appointed to the Metropolitan.

Where comparisons can be made the present performances are more “artistic” and less “crowd-pleasing” than the American recitals (and most other Björling recordings of the same items). This may of course have something to do with Björling’s mood, the Danish audience’s behavior compared to US audiences, and the somewhat smaller size of the auditorium compared to many American venues.

The first part of the concert starts with Tamino’s aria from Die Zauberflöte, a role Jussi only had sung five times a quarter-century earlier. He uses the Swedish translation he learnt then, and his only previously known recordings of this aria come from two Gröna Lund concerts in 1958 and 1959. Rich-voiced and ardent, this is by no means what we now expect in Mozart, but exactly because of that I find it valuable. Björling’s teacher John Forsell was a famous Mozartian, and he had Björling make his debut in Don Giovanni. As he revisited this repertoire rarely, in 1959 his singing still reflects early-1900s conceptions of Mozart style. Comparisons with Slezak, Jörn, Jadlowker and Tauber may be instructive.

Following Mozart we get five German Lieder. The first and most valuable, to my mind, is Brahms’s Die Mainacht, given slowly with lots of portamentos and care for dynamics. It is an object lesson in legato singing in German, with the consonants clear but never breaking the line. Even among “early” recordings of this song, I find it hard to identify anyone who does it just like this, and instead I’m reminded of violinists like Fritz Kreisler caressing the slow movements in concertos by Mendelssohn or Brahms. As this was formerly available with Björling only in a 1952 studio recording, it is one of the most valuable tracks, like the following two songs which are almost as rare in Björling’s discography, and equally good: Liszt’s Es muss ein Wunderbares sein and Wolf’s Verborgenheit. Schubert’s Die Forelle and Die böse Farbe that follow are, by comparison, less valuable. The first part ends with a good performance of the Carmen Flower song.

After the intermission there was a group of six songs by Peterson-Berger, Alfvén, Sibelius and Grieg – all among the best versions I have heard, with melting pianissimos and dramatic outbursts all clearly related to the meaning of the words. The final official number, Come un bel dì di Maggio from Andrea Chenier, may be less artistic with a few Italian slips. But even if the Carmen aria and this seem like concessions to those in the audience who have come to hear opera rather than “art songs”, they are done with serious attention to dramatic context.

For encores, we only get Tosti’s Ideale and Strauss’s Zueignung, both ranking very high among the multiple versions Björling left us. Things like the final soft E of Ideale, drawn out in a way that reminds me of Chaliapin’s famous live Boris death scene from Covent Garden, benefit from the spacious recording.

The 18-minute bonus is one of several such programmes which have been reissued before, but in this case claims are made that this is its first issue with all announcements and at correct pitch. Its last issue seems to have been only last year, as a filler on Björling’s 1941 Met Trovatore. In addition to the two obligatory Firestone introductory and closing items, we hear Speaks’s Sylvia, Nessun dorma, L’alba separa della luce l’ombra, and Victor Herbert’s Neapolitan Love Song. The same items are in other such concerts so this is mostly for Björling completists. But as sound is excellent they make up a nice bonus.

New discoveries like this always make me curious what else may exist. By Björling, there are very few possible new finds. There have of course been rumors about his Chicago Trovatore with Callas ever since it happened in 1955. There may be more concerts like the present one, but probably no new repertoire. Several undocumented roles were actually broadcast from the Stockholm Opera in the 1930s, but it is unlikely that private recordings were made and turn up now. My own major wish would be for a recording of the Fidelio concert conducted by Fritz Busch in Cincinnati 1948. But of course alternate performances of works already documented can also be valuable – like the incomplete and unissued Lucerne Verdi Requiem from 1939 under Toscanini.

And maybe this Falkoner Centre recording will be followed by recordings of others who sang there. Following Judy Garland and Jussi Björling, there can be others: Callas, Nilsson, Sutherland, Christoff, and Marian Anderson are singers mentioned by the new owner of the tapes, in addition to many instrumentalists.

Nils-Göran Olve