Il trovatore – with Björling, Cigna

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(London, May 12, 1939, live). Björling, Cigna, Wettergren, Basiola, Zambelli; Gui; Chor. and Orch of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. (Originally $19.95)

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Listen to a sample:

“If you want this performance in the best sound available at this time, get the BCS. You will be pleasantly surprised.”–Nicholas E. Limansky, Opera News

Kenneth Meltzer, writing in Classical CD Review:

“This Trovatore is essential listening, as it ranks among Bjoerling’s greatest recorded performances. The Swedish tenor is in his youthful prime, with a gloriously sweet and supple tone that also offers plenty of slancio. The high notes ring out with tremendous focus and power. Bjoerling joins Gina Cigna for a resounding D-flat at the conclusion of the Act I trio. The cabaletta ‘Di quella pira’ features two stunning high Cs, the second driving the Covent Garden audience into a frenzy. There is also a sensitivity in Bjoerling’s performance that places it on an exalted level. The exchanges with Azucena and Leonora are delivered with a loving tenderness that serves to make Bjoerling’s heroic outpourings all the more potent. In short, Bjoerling ideally captures all three aspects of Manrico’s character–son, lover, and warrior.

“Bjoerling also possesses the technical gifts to do justice to Verdi’s challenging music. ‘Ah sì, ben mio,’ taken at a true adagio, demonstrates the tenor’s impressive breath control. The aria also features beautiful dynamic shading, and a masterful employment of rubato. And, rarity of rarities, Bjoerling treats his audience to a pair of brief, but perfectly executed trills, just as Verdi demands. This is certainly my favorite Bjoerling rendition of this beautiful aria, and one of the greatest versions of all time. I could go on and on about the magnificence of Bjoerling’s Covent Garden Manrico. Suffice it to say that even if you own his excellent RCA studio Trovatore, you should make an effort to hear this far more inspired interpretation. When I want to hear the best of this unique and superb artist, I almost invariably seek his in-performance recordings, which sweep away all criticism that the Swedish tenor was a cold, uninvolved performer.

“The rest of the cast is quite strong. Cigna, who died recently at the age of 101, brings a heroic voice and plenty of temperament to the role of Leonora. In this performance I frequently had the sense that Cigna was working hard to scale back her massive voice to handle Leonara’s more lyrical passages. Nevertheless, Cigna handles the coloratura reasonably well and there is much poised, beautiful singing. And as you might expect, the climaxes ring out with impressive force. This is certainly not a shy and retiring Leonora, but a passionate woman who is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the man she loves. Mezzo-soprano Gertrud Wettergren begins rather slowly, encountering difficulties sustaining the line in her opening monologue. By the last two acts she hits her stride. The confrontation with di Luna is quite impressive, as is the touching final scene with Manrico.

“Mario Basiola is a lyric-voiced di Luna who is nevertheless quite capable of portraying the character’s vengeful nature. He manages conductor Vittorio Gui’s slow tempo for ‘Il balen’ quite well. One curiosity–in the recitative preceding the Act III confrontation with Azucena, Basiola takes the phrase ‘O Leonora!’ down an octave, in a hoarse whisper. Perhaps this is a brief episode of vocal distress, from which, in any event, Basiola quickly recovers. Bass Corrado Zambelli is a strong Ferrando.

“Gui leads a performance that often features broad tempi. Nevertheless, the momentum never sags, due to the conductor’s masterful application of rubato, insistence upon incisive attacks, and keen sense of rhythmic and dynamic contrast. I doubt you would hear too many of today’s conductors take such an individual approach to Verdi’s score, thus making this performance all the more valuable despite the limitations of the recorded sound.”

Robert Levine, writing in Classics Today:

“The draw here clearly is the Manrico of Jussi Björling, taped live at Covent Garden in 1939, 13 years before he recorded the opera commercially for RCA. From the very start, in his off-stage ‘Deserto sulla terra’, we hear that tear-infused, gorgeous sound–this turns out to be a remarkably lachrymose Manrico, not altogether a bad thing. In his duet with Azucena he’s simply ravishing: ‘Mal reggendo’ is an object lesson in handsome phrasing and plain old expressive singing. A melting, long-breathed ‘Ah, si ben mio’ (complete with trill) with stunning dynamic shading is followed by a rousing ‘Di quella pira’, sung in the right key, with blazing high-Cs. And Björling’s similarly impressive in the last act, touching and tender with Azucena, manly and furious with Leonora–a dynamite performance.

“Gina Cigna’s Leonora can be wiry and wild, but she’s thoroughly involved and has great dignity. There’s only occasional beauty to be gleaned from her work, but you do know you’ve heard a real Leonora when she’s done. The otherwise forgotten Gertrud Wettergren is thrilling as Azucena. Hers may not be a high-quality voice, but she’s fearless and paints us a brilliant picture of this operatic loon. Mario Basiola’s handsome if not superb baritone sometimes is stressed by Vittorio Gui’s slow tempos, but he also is in the fine Italian tradition. Gui in general is impressive; you get the feeling that another rehearsal or two and this would have been quite a Trovatore. There are moments when the Covent Garden chorus sounds as if it had just learned the text, but it and the orchestra are good enough.

“But oh, that Björling!”

Mike V. Ashman, writing in International Record Review:

“A contemporary review of Gui’s performance in Beecham’s Covent Garden opera season praised its ‘unusual weightiness of purpose’. Like Giulini many years later in the studio, Gui eschews obvious noise and dash in favour of relentless black purpose, a Traviata-inclined reading of the score which stresses the progressive rather than the blood-and-thunder elements. The orchestra plays most stylishly for him; even the chorus (not the strongest aspect of Bow Street music-making in the 1930s) contribute well. Björling, perhaps the set’s raison d’être, is heard in his London stage début; he sings gloriously and unindulgently, while fielding all the fire power to knock out that uncanonical top C in ‘Di quella pira’ as thrillingly as Corelli. Cigna, sniffed at by reviewers and apparently by the audience, takes some time to warm up, but ‘D’amor sull’ali rosee’ and the exchanges with di Luna are stylishly and cleanly delivered. Wettergren is a moving, unhistrionic gipsy mother; Basiola a most serviceable Count. The recording is an important addition to the historical catalogue.”

Stephen Hastings, reviewing in the Journal of the Jussi Björling Society:
(This review originally was published in Italian in the magazine Musica.)

“Of this century’s tenors, Björling is the one who has perhaps come closest to embodying the ideal qualities for a role such as Manrico, thanks to his exquisitely youthful timbre, his inspired phrasing and formidable ring in the upper register. These qualities are very much in evidence in the 1938 and 1939 studio recordings of ‘Ah sì, ben mio’ and ‘Di quella pira,’ but they emerge still more irresistibly in a live recording of a performance conducted by Vittorio Gui at Covent Garden in 1939. A performance worth hearing in its entirety (the cabaletta and the final duet with Azucena are particularly memorable) that includes the most perfect interpretation of ‘Ah sì, ben mio’ ever preserved. Comparing this performance in fact with others by Caruso, Fernando De Lucia, Aureliano Pertile, Antonio Cortis, Helge Roswaenge, Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Placido Domingo and Pavarotti–and also with Björling himself in the complete recording conducted by Cellini–one discovers that no other tenor has succeeded in rendering so poetically every detail of Verdi’s score, both in the recitative and aria. This achievement was made possible by Gui’s respect for the prescribed tempo, Adagio (many conductors transform it into an Andante), and by Björling’s ability to sustain that tempo with extraordinary virtuosity. Only Bergonzi approaches the effect he makes in this aria, but his line is less liquid, the details less finished, the timbre less caressing.”

William Hicks, conductor, formerly accompanist to Pavarotti and Scotto:

“I’ve never heard Björling this great. The studio recording, great though it is, pales in comparison.”

Go to the Reviews tab for additional reviews by Alan Blyth in Gramophone and John T. Hughes in Classic Record Collector.

This performance was Björling’s London debut.

Gigli was there. Afterwards he embraced Björling in his dressing room and sent him a photograph with the inscription “Al tenore Björling–con ammirazione cameradesca.” [To the tenor Björling, with admiration from a comrade.]

The Evening News wrote, “Manrico should be a stalwart soldier-like figure with a voice to match, whereas Björling is of medium height, bears himself modestly and sings like a poet. His singing appealed irresistibly with its easy flow of beautiful tone, its fine lines and its delicacy. He can sing a melody as few singers do nowadays; and–rarer still–he can send his voice to the middle of every note and keep it there.”

One reason why ours are the best-sounding CDs of historical performances

The contents of this CD were transferred from analog sources using the improved high-resolution technology called DSD (Direct Stream Digital). DSD operates at one bit and 2,822,400 samples per second. The result sounds more like analog than conversions using Pulse Code Modulation technology (even at the emerging PCM standard of 24 bits and 96 kilohertz) because it creates fewer digital artifacts, such as glassiness, glare and harshness. CDs made from DSD conversions sound better than other CDs, so I’m able to listen to them hour after hour without audio fatigue.

All PCM technology incorporates filters that chop off high frequencies beyond the range of human hearing. Moreover, most PCM incorporates filters that ‘decimate’ the sound into 8, 16, 20 or 24 bits, which then must be ‘requantized.’ All this causes most digital artifacts. DSD is better in part because it has no filters. DSD also conveys more sonic detail than PCM conversions. With DSD conversions, virtually all digital artifacts you may hear are added by your CD player.

Mastering was by A. T. Michael MacDonald and Rich Lamb of AlgoRhythms, New York City.–SZ

More reasons why our CDs have superior sound

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Inventor Ed Meitner, Rescuer of Digital Sound