Across The Baltic and Further Adventures in Finland (July 10-20, 2007)

July 10-20 in Lahti, Savonlinna, and Helsinki (trip continued)

After arriving in Stockholm (July 10), we bid a fond farewell to our bus driver, Björn, and most of our Swedish companions, and boarded the Silja-line ferry Symphony for Helsinki. The ship was more of a floating shopping mall than a cruise ship, but a good time was had by all as we spread ourselves from Commodore Class to Steerage. Some of us slept, some took in the Casino and bar, and Don thought that he had been able to get a glimpse of Sairo. A peaceful night, the Baltic was very calm, and by daylight we were steaming amongst the islands of the Helsinki archipelago.

After docking at the Helsinki city terminal we left the ship and moved directly to our waiting bus, and headed for Savonlinna with a short stop along the way at Lahti, home of an annual Sibelius festival. There we found a pleasant lunch on board the restaurant boat Ilona, and then were given a tour of the magnificent and recently constructed Sibeliushalle by its director. Finnish design rules!

Then, back on the bus, to complete our journey to Savonlinna. Once installed in our rooms, some of us checked out the town, others collapsed from exhaustion at this point, but some hardy souls did make it to the evening performance of Lucia di Lammermoor starring Eglise Gutiérrez and superb Korean tenor Jeong Won Lee.

The following days involved operas at the castle – Olli Kortekangas’s new Daddy’s Girl, Verdi’s Macbeth, and Carmen, All of which were magnificent performances, excellently sung and staged with the looming presence of Olavinlinna Castle surrounding us.

We also experienced the great pleasure of having maestro Leif Segerstam join us for dinner at the lakeside restaurant Huvila. Our convivial guest, who had conducted Macbeth the night before, was vastly entertaining and a font of information on a lifetime of music in Finland and around the world. Born in 1944, he never saw Jussi in concert, but still recalled hearing him live on Finnish Radio.

In between operas and concerts, we visited the castle and the local market, ate excellent seafood, visited the Retretti art museum and caverns by boat across huge Lake Saimaa, and generally hung out.

After five days of this culture-immersion, we regretfully left Savonlinna via chartered bus to Helsinki. While the cultural part of our trip was now over, we still had much to do in Finland’s magnificent capital. Unhappily, it was also at this point that our party began to break up and head home. Still, those who remained for a while managed to cram in rambles through the city, visiting the Rock Church and the National Museum, enjoying some great food, and visits to Talinn in Estonia and to Porvoo, an uncomfortable shlep three hours down the coast by boat, but worth the visit nonetheless.

In the evenings, we gathered together in one of the city’s great restaurants. Often it was a pleasure just to stroll the boulevards with some good friends. Or relax at the end of a full day.

Altogether, the trip was an unforgettable experience. The scenic joys of Sweden and Finland, the unstinting generosity of our friends from the Scandinavian Björling Society, the wonderful music and cultural experiences and the general good fellowship of all who made the trip. As Vivienne and I hunker down to endure another Canadian winter, these are memories to warm us.

Report on JBS tour of Sweden and Finland (July 4-20, 2007)

July 4-7 in Dalarna province, mostly Borlänge and Mora

The 2007 Summer JBS Swedish safari opened on July 4th in Borlänge at the Jussi Björling Museum there, a place that some of us regard as the “center of the universe.” This year’s Museum program was unusual in the emphasis on singers other than JB, and on aspects of Jussi in areas other than singing. Really. Harald welcomed all with good cheer (and a new haircut), and we got a running start on a couple of very full days.

Music journalist Göran Forsling gave us a splendid overview of Swedish singers of the past on Wednesday morning, followed in the afternoon by Museum summer staffer Roger Alderstrand, who discussed – with illustrations – Jussi in caricature. Roger’s favorites, and ours, were the drawings more clearly done out of a spirit of affection.

We learned about more Scandinavian singers on Thursday, with a presentation by Ragnhild Nyhus, Director of Norway’s Flagstad Museum, followed by local music critic (and official transfer engineer for Bluebell Records) Christer Eklund who spoke about the Kerstin Thorborg archive in nearby Falun. A subset of our group went off to the resort town of Siljansnäs to hear young mezzo-soprano Ann-Kristin Jones [“You-nes”] with the Dala Sinfonietta in a program of Nordic songs by Grieg and Alfvén. The scenery along Lake Siljan was gorgeous on this lovely Swedish evening, and the concert fit that mood with fresh vibrant singing from local favorite Ms. Jones: watch for a big career for this mezzo -soprano from Leksand!

Friday afternoon was devoted to Jussi and an assortment of connections to sports, however tenuous. Jan-Olof Damberg spoke on Jussi as participant, observer, and performer at opening ceremonies live and televised. Harald wrapped up Friday with a carefully researched overview of everything we know about David Björling’s early years and the beginnings of the Björling Male Quartet.

Saturday morning, we loaded on our enormous bus for the first time, and set off first for a quiet visit to Stora Tuna’s church and its graveyard with Jussi and many family members. Then we headed north to Mora and the Anders Zorn Museum. The bus had a huge sign on the side, which announced that we were the “ Jussi Björling Society-USA,” and folks stopped and stared, in amazement, I think.

Kerstin Meyer joined us in Mora, and stayed with the group for the remainder of the Swedish part of the tour. She was unfailingly kind to all, generous with her time and energy and willing to listen patiently to any and all.

Raymond Björling gave a lovely concert at the “Music on Lake Siljan” Festival,

with a mixture of folk tunes, arias and other concert pieces. The selections were not always familiar and included some songs from contemporary musicals, but Raymond’s warmth and ease in the material was truly delightful. I’ve heard him sing quite a few times now, and felt that these charming songs might have been written for him.

July 8-9 in Hälsingland

Dan, Harald, and Hans Thunström working together had procured for us the huge bus mentioned earlier, together with our young, patient, and good-humored driver. We set off first for Bolnäs where we were joined by Stefan Olmårs and a contingent from the Scandinavian JB Society. First stop was coffee and cake: the Swedes always have their priorities in order.

Stefan Johansson, Chief Dramaturg of the Royal Opera, joined the group in Bolnäs, and was – as always – a highly informed, articulate and amusing companion during the rest of the program in Sweden.

Stefan O. had us tightly scheduled, and we continued our day with a visit to the only linen mill remaining in Scandinavia (where we saw linen being made the really OLD way), then on to Strömsbruk for some of David Björling’s early history, a short bus tour of historical houses in Hälsingland, more coffee and cake – this time at Stefan’s home, courtesy of Christina Olmårs, and finally dinner at Järvsöbaden and at last to bed.

Stefan O. was the usual masterful if perhaps overly ambitious organizer, and we spent several hours traveling between historical places. The passing impressions of Hälsingland’s painted houses made us all want to see more, and Stefan also arranged that.

Monday we got to sleep in a bit, and then gathered to listen to Bertil Bengtsson speak on the history of the Swedish singing tradition. There were plenty of good questions and comments, followed by yet another typical smögåsbord lunch.

Afternoon travel included a local folk museum in Edsbyn, which was truly extraordinarily fine, both in the quality of exhibits – mostly local folk art – and the quality of the presentations themselves. Our two traveling curators were deeply impressed.

A highpoint on Monday was the annual “Jussi in Our Hearts” concert at Voxna Church. Posters identified the event as a “Jussifest,” and it truly was. Our singers were Scandinavian Society President baritone Bengt Krantz, up and coming young tenor Mats Carlsson, and local talent (tenor and weight lifter) Hans Qvarfell.

Krantz and Carlsson, the professionals, gave us a full program of stirring Swedish songs and arias and duets from opera. But the surprise of the event was elderly and masterful bass-baritone Torsten Föllinger, who sang “Ol’ man river.” There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

We concluded, as always, with the whole audience singing “Land, du välsignade,” and then we were off to Voxna Herrgård for a lovely smörgåsbord dinner.

Two further major musical events of the day still awaited us after dinner: Stefan Olmårs described an interview he had managed with Renee Fleming, and then our magnificent Kerstin Meyer spoke eloquently about her career and especially on her early encounters with our tenor.

Highlights from her Bluebell aria CD were played, as well as the ‘Ai nostri monti’ duet from Trovatore , with Jussi (1960).

On Monday morning, we had a brief stop for an interview, and then had a look in at Stefan’s own painted house, where his son Olle and Olle’s new bride will be living.

Most of the Swedes left us at Bolnäs to return to their homes via train, and the rest of us rode on to Stockholm’s ferry terminal for our overnight float to Helsinki.

July 10-20 in Lahti, Savonlinna, and Helsinki (to be continued)

1950 Met Opera Broadcast of Faust


What follows is excerpted from Göran Forsling’s review for Musicweb of Naxos’s recent release of a newly-remastered recording of Björling’s 1950 Faust broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera.

This 3 CD set contains some of the most glorious tenor singing ever recorded. Buy it!!! The name Ward Marston as Restoration Producer is as always a guarantee that the quality of the sound is the best imaginable. And so it is here as well, but not even he can do much about a generally thin orchestral sound and a substantial helping of extraneous noises: coughs (all right, it was recorded the day before Christmas Eve and the winter cold had begun in N.Y.), bumps…. And of course stage movements are heard, some of them contributing to the atmosphere of being there at the old Met. Some of it is slightly irritating and in one scene there is a constant ticking noise that I wasn’t able to identify. [Editor’s note: This occurs during’s Marguerite’s “spinning-song” and comes from the old fake loom used as a prop in this ancient Met production! I saw this production at a 1953 student performance.  Gads. —DS]

I wonder where the microphone was placed? The applause after the set numbers is retained and it is good to hear the enthusiasm from the audience.  At the end of acts they are quickly faded out and instead we hear the announcer—I suppose it is Milton Cross who was the announcer from 1931, when the Met broadcasts began, until 1975—with colourful comments.  The sound quality naturally affects the enjoyment of the orchestra and also the chorus suffers. As usual, however, when the music-making is outstanding one soon forgets the technical shortcomings and just leans back to enjoy the performance. From very early on it is obvious that this will be a thrilling [afternoon]. Fausto Cleva adopts generally lively tempos and generates a lot of energy and there are enthusiastic contributions from the chorus. I think Gounod’s sometimes over-sweet music fares well when desentimentalized.  And Cleva knows when to draw out the phrases, e.g. in the Garden scene duet.

It is a great relief that the voices are so well caught and as soon as we hear Jussi Björling’s easily recognisable timbre (the first singing in the opera) we know that we are in for an unforgettable performance. This was one of his favourite parts, but besides the cavatina, he never recorded anything from the opera, even if there were plans for a complete recording with Beecham. So much better then, that this document exists. Björling was in tremendous form that day, he sings with such confidence and authority and pours out a steady stream of golden tone.

The whole first scene is a real tour de force of great singing, since the young Cesare Siepi is almost on a par with Björling.When Faust approaches Marguerite at the end of Act 1, Ne permettez-vous pas (CD1 track 13) Björling sings so beautifully and the words je t’aime! (I love you!) are invested with such glow that even a piece of rock from the Scandinavian Mountain Range would melt.

The Cavatina (CD1 track 17) is gloriously sung with refulgent tone and a perfect high C, but one misses some of the more lyrical qualities in this aria. On the other hand we get those aplenty in the Garden scene duet (CD2 track 4 and 5) where Ô nuit d’amour must be unsurpassed.

And listen to Divine purete (track 6 at 3:12)—can anyone regard this as “cool” singing? In the Prison scene duet Mon Coeur est pénétré d’épouvante! (CD3 track 9) is really incandescent.  I can only repeat the first sentence of this review: “… some of the most glorious tenor singing ever recorded”. And Björling isn’t the only glorious singer here. I have already briefly mentioned Cesare Siepi, 27 years of age but with an authority and a palette of colours and histrionic skill (including a really devilish laughter) that one thought needed at least another ten years to acquire. His voice, a true, black, velvety bass, can be seductive and menacing, elegant and crude, oily and straight-forward.
Le veau d’or (CD1 track 9) is delivered at a rousing tempo, while his Il était temps (CD2 track 3) shows his outstanding legato and the serenade (CD2 track 10) is sung with melting tone and elegance; the first laughter doesn’t sound very diabolic, but the final outburst clearly shows where he belongs. A great portrait of Méphistophélès to set beside Chaliapin’s and Christoff ’s assumptions but Siepi is more elegant than either of them.

The third main character, Marguerite, is here sung by the American soprano Dorothy Kirsten, who seems to be rather under-represented on record. To judge from this hearing she should have had more recording opportunities. She hasn’t quite the innocent charm and the silken pianissimo singing of Victoria de los Angeles, possibly the best Marguerite on disc, but she has still a fine voice, slightly fluttery but with a good ring and she is a fine actor. The song about the King of Thulé and the Jewel song are excellently done, a view which the audience at the Met seems to share. The Church scene finds her in slightly less steady voice but in the concluding prison scene she is back on form again.

Of the other soloists Frank Guarrera, most well-known perhaps for his Ford in Toscanini’s recording ofFalstaff, has steady fine tone in Avant de quitter ces lieux (CD1 track 8). His French is better than the others’, but he lacks the French elegance, he pushes too much and would probably feel more at home in verismo. His death scene is even more forceful. The rest of the cast consists of acceptable comprimario singers.

The main reason for acquiring the set is the singing of the three main characters and, first and foremost Jussi Björling. The value of the discs is further enhanced by the substantial appendix, containing more than 40 minutes of equally glorious singing from the great tenor as in the opera.  There are excerpts from three occasions, first the Telephone Hour, where he sings Schubert’s Ständchen very operatically but gloriously.  Compared to the Gigli recording Björling still conveys something of the Lied character—and he sings it in German.  Victor Herbert’s Neapolitan Love Song, where he challenges and outsings Mario Lanza, is a reminder of his early recording career in the 1930s when he recorded quite a lot of popular songs, much of them under the pseudonym Erik Odde—recordings that are due for release on Naxos, at least in Sweden.Whether they can be of general interest for an international public, sung in Swedish, is another matter. The recording is very acceptable, while the Hollywood Bowl recordings are more distant. He sings however a finely nuanced Che gelida manina with a brilliant high C and a lovely pianissimo ending. In the love duet he is partnered by his wife Anna-Lisa, who was a good singer too, which can be heard here, but she chose to have a very limited career of her own and instead take care of the children. Her Mimi is very well sung and she also takes part (uncredited) in the Madrigal from Roméo et Juliette, which is announced by Jussi.  The remaining items, recorded in a studio with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in October 1952 and broadcast on Boxing Day the same year, offer much better sound.  Una furtiva lagrima is better sung than either of his official recordings and the aria from Cavalleria rusticana shows him deeply involved with tremendous intensity. “Cool” singer?  Bad actor? Just listen to this track and you’ll be converted. His singing “In fernem Land” from Lohengrin may come as a surprise to many listeners, but Björling would certainly have been a wonderful Lohengrin on stage and on records. Among the many plans for further recording projects that never came to being, was actually Lohengrin. The aria is sung here in Swedish, sensitively, authoritatively with refulgent tone and excellent diction.  He sang this aria at his very last concert, just weeks before his untimely death, luckily recorded and later issued by RCA. At the same concert he also sang two of the three Sibelius songs recorded here, Svarta rosor and Säv, säv, susa, two favourite songs of his, recorded several times. They are on the recently issued song recital on Naxos. The first of them, Var det en dröm?, suddenly finds him more recessed, almost as if he were singing from behind the orchestra while the harp is centre-stage. In Svarta rosor (Black roses) the harp is still prominent but Björling is closer to the microphone. This balance problem apart he sings wonderfully with Sten Frykberg providing fine accompaniments.  This appendix alone is worth the price of the whole set. And since the opera has so much to offer you won’t regret the purchase. You don’t get a libretto but Keith Anderson’s detailed synopsis is a good substitute and Malcolm Walker gives interesting information about the opera and the singers.

Buy it!

Some kind of heaven: Six days of Jussi-appreciation in Stockholm and Borlänge, September 8-13th

Lars Björling, Ulla Westlund, Raymond Björling in Stora Tuna Church

Fans of the late Swedish tenor Jussi Björling converged on Stockholm and Borlänge, Sweden, during September 8th-13th. They came from all around the world to attend an International Congress that chronicled Björling’s extraordinary life and career.

Titled “A Celebration of the Jussi Björling Museum after Ten Years,” this event was the brainchild of Harald Henrysson, Curator of the Jussi Björling Museum in Borlänge, and was organized through the combined efforts of the Scandinavian Jussi Björling Sällskapet, The Jussi Björling Appreciation Society (UK), the Jussi Björling Society-USA, and the Jussi Björling Museum.

The Congress drew participants from Germany, Great Britain, Switzerland, Italy, the United States, Canada, Brazil, Chile, Norway, and Sweden. The Congress program included eighteen presentations and panels, a major concert at Stora Tuna Church, dinners, receptions, and tours.

A gala concert of Jussi Björling’s audio and visual recordings was hosted by Bertil Bengtsson on September 8, the evening before the official start of the Congress. This event sold out the 400-seat auditorium of Stockholm’s Royal College of Music, with quite a few disappointed fans unable to find last-minute tickets. The audience thrilled to Jussi’s voice as projected through the top-quality sound system, and during intermission they bought up every single CD in Naxos’s display of their new “Jussi Björling Collection.”

Highlights of the first day include the venue itself: the opulent Golden Foyer of the Royal Opera House, where we got a warm welcome from the new Director of the Royal Opera, Anders Franzén, and greetings from the Chairs of all three Societies, as well as a short welcome from Harald Henrysson, and an intriguing keynote address from Andrew Farkas.

As Harald said, “we have gathered here, Jussiphiles, from ten countries, surrounded by Sweden’s operatic history. I hope and believe that five days of interesting and engaged lectures and presentations on Jussi Björling and of listening to his rich recorded legacy will offer us much new and deepened insights about one of the 20th centuries greatest artists and one of Sweden’s greatest prides.” The day, September 9, had been chosen to mark the anniversary of Jussi’s death in 1960.

Other outstanding presentations were an overview of Swedish operatic tradition from Stefan Johansson, Chief Dramaturg of the Royal Opera, and a panel of singers who had performed with Jussi: Kjerstin Dellert, Elisabeth Söderström, Ragnar Ulfung, Ingvar Wixell, Per Grundén, and Eric Saedén. The knowledgeable moderator was Stockholm broadcast personality Niklas Lindblad.

The afternoon ended with a fascinating tour of the Opera House. Then many of us went to dinner at the nearby Bern’s restaurant, and returned to see a performance of Smetana’s Bartered bride.

We moved to Stockholm’s Music Museum for the second day, where we were welcomed by its Curator Stefan Bohman. John Steane and Jürgen Kesting each gave provocative commentaries on Jussi’s art, well illustrated with some of the tenor’s greatest recordings. And then we went out into the spectacularly sunny day, to ride busses to Stockholm’s Stadshus (City Hall) where a warm welcome from the Vice-mayor was followed by a marvelous buffet lunch and then a tour of the historic building. The whole city looked absolutely gorgeous.

After we returned to the Museum, we heard Ann-Charlotte Björling in conversation with Andrew Farkas, as she generously shared memories of her father, on Siarö and during travels to Rome and London for recording projects.

The day’s final speaker, Johan Sundberg, Professor of musical acoustics, addressed the highly technical subject of human vocal production, with special attention to unusual features of Jussi’s vocal technique. Many of us felt just on the verge of understanding this big topic. (Luckily there was no quiz afterwards, although a lively discussion did help clarify the issues.)

Friday evening, many of our group elected to return to Berns Restaurant for a relaxing dinner prior to attending a performance of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore at the Royal Opera.

Saturday morning brought yet another beautiful day, as we boarded our punctual busses for the drive to Borlänge A number of important touristic sites were pointed out on the way, such as the world’s largest Dala horse, and Harald Henrysson’s home.

After checking into our Borlänge hotels, Harald opened the Museum to our excited and acquisitive band, and much enthusiastic record-shopping ensued.

Another lovely buffet awaited us, courtesy of the City of Borlänge, after an interesting tour of another historic site (the 15th century Ornästugan, where Gustav Vasa, first king of the Swedes, had hidden from the marauding Danes). The outdoor setting was idyllic, and we were honored by warm words of welcome from city officials Lars Ivarsson and Elsy Andersson.

Back at the Museum, the evening concluded with an evening talk by Richard Copeman, President of the JBAS, on collecting Björling memorabilia.

On Sunday, September 12, Congress participants joined Harald Henrysson for a walk to the site of Jussi’s birthplace, and, for a time, his childhood home, indicated by an historical plaque where the house once stood.

Following lunch, the program shifted to the adjacent Mission Church where composer, conductor, and musicologist Lennart Hedwall discussed Jussi Björling and the Swedish Art Song.

Harald Henrysson‘s program Rare Björling recordings in the collection of the Jussi Björling Museum featured a number of choice items from the period of 1937 to 1957 played in an approximate chronological order. Nearly all of these items can only be heard at the Jussi Björling Museum. (If you haven’t been there yet, you need to plan a trip to Sweden – preferably with a group of JBS-friends.)

That evening, participants boarded busses for Stora Tuna Kyrka (Church) and visited the graves of Jussi, David, Gösta, Rolf and other Björling family members prior to attending a memorable Festkonsert at the church featuring Jussi’s son Lars, grandson Raymond Björling, and local soprano Ulla Westlund performing with the Dala Sinfonietta.

The program resumed at the Mission Church on Monday where Sue Flaster presented the voices of Olle, Gösta, Karl, Rolf and Ann-Charlotte Björling in audio recordings and video segments.

Stefan Lindström, a sound engineer with extensive experience in sound restoration, discussed the art of sound transfer engineering and, in particular, his experience with the transfer of historic Björling recordings for Naxos-Sweden. He described in language accessible to the layperson the recording process from singer to microphone to record, and then remastering of an analogue recording to CD via digital technology.

After lunch we heard from Marianne Liljas, a doctoral student, on the origins of David Björling’s teaching techniques, and one more superb presentation from Stephen Hastings, ingeniously titled “Jussi Björling’s invisible technique.”

The splendid conference ended with a banquet at the Galaxen Hotel, from which we all needed to be forcibly removed.