Cited by many as the greatest singer of the 20th century, Jussi Bjorling was a Swedish tenor whose velvety voice possessed a much-desired quality known as ‘spinto”, a vocal term used to characterize a soprano or tenor voice of a weight between lyric and dramatic that is capable of handling large musical climaxes in opera at moderate intervals; in short a spinto singer can rise above the wall of sound created by an orchestra. Conductors and fellow-musicians prized the opportunity to work with him, since he was a man without ego, a man with a relentlessly sunny disposition, a tenor who wasn’t your typical egomaniac in search of self-aggrandizement.
Frequently compared with Caruso, Ponselle and Flagstad, Bjorling gave to the operatic world an incalculable legacy, burnished even brighter by his early death of an enlarged heart at the age of 49 in 1960. Even in the months preceding his death, Jussi retained his youthful lyricism and his superb technique, characterized by a brightly-toned voice with just a tinge of melancholy.
More elegant than Pavarotti, infinitely more precise in his diction without being pedantic, Bjorling projected a restrained but intense passion that makes his finest performances memorable for a lifetime. His “Nessun Dorma”, for instance, renders the competition (and operatic tenor singing is no less a contest than an Olympic decathalon) far too showy, even sloppy compared to Bjorling. And as for his “Una Furtiva Lagrima”, this incredibly moving “Recondita Armonia”, and “La Donna e Mobile”, there are none better. For many fans of great operatic singers, there is Caruso, and then there is Bjorling.
It must be said that the audience for classical music remains small, passionate and committed to record-buying, as well as an inspiration to the music industry which often despairs of the iTunes generation. Long after the best of current popular music has been forgotten, the works of Jussi Bjorling will continue to triumph with new generations of listeners.
If you are new to classical music, new to operatic tenors, and more than slightly bored with the ephemeral nature of most current music, you may owe it to yourself to invest in The Very Best of Jussi Bjorling. And yes, we did use the word ‘invest”.