Remembering this weekend's other notable centennial: tenor Jussi Bjorling
OK, so he didn’t lead a country or challenge anyone to “tear down that wall.” But, in his own realm, Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling is every bit as loved and lionized as Ronald Reagan is in his.
Saturday marks Bjorling’s centennial, an event that will not get as much attention as Reagan’s on Sunday, but I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to the singer I’d happily defend as the greatest lyric tenor of the 20th century.
Caruso enjoyed more fame and made a bigger impact historically, and the Italian tenor's fabulous vocal resources remain overwhelming, even through the limited sonic means of early recordings. But Bjorling had something that I find even more appealing, more thrilling.
His is a voice I could listen to for hours on end without growing weary. Part of that is the eloquent style behind the singing, the avoidance of anything manipulative or tacky (he was not the type to add sobs to the big aria in “Pagliacci”). But the main thing is the exquisite purity of the tone, with a hint of sweetness making it ever more personal and inviting. There's something of the sun in his voice, and it's that radiance that gets me every time.
Bjorling died, absurdly young, at 49 in 1960 (he had heart trouble and a weakness for drink), but what a legacy he left behind. If you haven’t yet explored that legacy, please seek his out recordings (there are a few video souvenirs, too) and see if you don’t fall quickly under the vocal spell. I’ll help get you started by
sharing these few favorites of mine -- Puccini, Strauss and a haunting Swedish song -- to celebrate the Bjorling centennial: