The Björling Sound: A Recorded Legacy
By Stephen Hastings
University of Rochester Press; 406 pp. $49.95
Stephen Hastings's fascinating study of more than four hundred recordings of Jussi Björling operates — and succeeds — on several levels. For fans of the legendary Swedish tenor, it makes for an exciting read about a beloved artist, inspiring the reader to rummage through his shelves of LPs and CDs, listen again to favorites and compare his own appraisal with that that of the author. As a reference book, it provides a well-organized guide to the work of one of the twentieth century's most documented opera singers. And for the neophyte, it supplies an education in vocal terminology and history, and an unerring understanding of the voice and how it functions.
This is not a book one would necessarily want to devour straight through, but in arranging it by composer, Hastings — a regular contributor to OPERA NEWS — has made it possible to find particular roles, arias or songs with ease. The loss of context in terms of the tenor's life and career is inevitable, as, consequently, it does not examine in great detail simultaneous events and performances. (Fortunately, the marvelous biography Jussi, by the tenor's widow Anna-Lisa and Andrew Farkas, supplies the perfect companion piece.) But aside from a few rough patches in health, this is not so much what the tenor was about; his career was of startling duration — lasting from the age of four, when he was part of the Björling Quartet, until his death at forty-nine — and the quality of his vocal performance was virtually uncompromised by age. So, whereas in the case of Maria Callas — for whom each year in a relatively short recorded career signified something very different in terms of the voice — with Björling's documented performances, the consistency is the amazing feature. The lack of artistic imagination that sometimes compromised the tenor's otherwise peerless vocalizing is not skirted by Hastings, who compares his subject's readings of full roles, arias and song material not only with those of his contemporaries but with historic singers and later artists. Although Hastings is obviously a great fan, he is never blind to the tenor's shortcomings, nor is he too subjective to understand preferring another singer in a particular excerpt.
But enough about flaws. Björling was, throughout his career, a paragon of vocal technique. His breath control, placement, chest resonance, squillo and innate expressivity are a timeless marvel. The Björling Sound reminds the reader of how natural the vocal art can be in so many kinds of music. Happily, Hastings defends Björling's lieder singing, which may not be of the intellectual variety but is seldom less than ravishing, and points out the tenor's uncanny ability to color his own instrument to match the instrumentation surrounding it. The mind boggles at the thought of this singer — so influenced by Caruso and yet so rooted in bel canto technique — who in his early twenties was praised nearly simultaneously as Ramerrez in La Fanciulla del West and as Almaviva in Barbiere. One can only sigh longingly when contemplating the unrecorded coloratura in the latter, which was deemed sensational at the time. Fortunately, most facets of the extraordinary art of the great tenor were captured in the recording studio or onstage and are compellingly covered in this aptly titled book.