Jussi of the Month August 2015
Jussi in South Africa
Departure from Bromma Airport, Stockholm
his accompanist during the tour, would arrange a safari, and Jussi loved animals. He never missed an opportunity to visit a zoo when time allowed. The possibility of seeing wild animals roaming free in their natural habitat finally made him give in. Himself he said, however that the main reason for accepting the tour was that he wanted to buy Anna-Lisa a diamond.
The trip was long and tiring. They flew from Stockholm to Rome, where Jussi had been less than a month earlier and recorded Manon Lescautwith Licia Albanese and Robert Merrill. There they stayed overnight and then flew via Crete and Khartoum, where it was boiling hot even in the middle of the night. From Khartoum it was a nonstop flight to Johannesburg – a distance of more than 4650 kilometres. Jussi had insisted on a sleeper, but in spite of that he was tired and in rather low spirits. And his mood didn’t improve when he was attacked by a herd of journalists upon arrival at Johannesburg.
A welcome from Philip Levard from African Theatre, Johannesburg
The questioning hardly yielded much benefit for the press. In Rand Daily Mail on 14 August the following article was published under the heading “No, No, No” Says Famous Tenor.
The famous Swedish tenor Jussi Björling, broadshouldered like a Viking, arrived in Johannesburg late last night from Stockholm and said “no” to everything.
- An interview Mr Björling? – No! Not after forty hours in the air (animato)
- A radio talk? – Definitely not. (with rising pitch)
- Coffee and sandwiches (all laid on)? – NO! (prestissimo)
- Do you like singing? – NO. Not at this time of the night! (with fire)
- Does the question bore you? – No, I’ve never been asked that before. (with a little more kindness)
- Why have you come so near the time of your first concert? – Because I sang in Stockholm the day before we left. (quiter)
- What is your favourite food? (Perhaps an unfortunate question) – At the moment I cannot even remember what herring is. (with a glint of a smile)
- What is your chest expansion? – I shall remember any time after 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.
- Your favourite music? Opera? – Tomorrow, tomorrow, I shall remember.
- If you were not a singer what would you like to be? – A concert manager!
Then he hopped it and “the gentlemen of the Press who had been vainly seeking interviews for 36 hours, were inclined to rate him as a musical re-incarnation of the elusive Pimpernel”, as E. B. Jacobson, music critic of Evening Post, put it. As on many other occasions it was his wife Anna-Lisa who had to step in and answer the questions more diplomatically.
Johannesburg is situated at an altitude of 1753 metres above sea-level, and as contracted Jussi should have arrived four days before the first concert to accustom himself – the air is much thinner there. Now he arrived the day before the concert, to be held at the Plaza Theatre, and there could be no rehearsal before the concert. Jussi needed rest. Before they went onstage, Jussi said to Ivor Newton:
- Don’t expect me to breathe after every word; I’ll be breathing after every syllable.
E. B. Jacobson in Evening Post also noted that Jussi in the opening number, Tamino’s aria from Die Zauberföte “[there] as elsewhere, he had to cope with the respiratory difficulties that face all singers at first acquaintance with the Rand altitude. But he was all commendatory to Jussi’s performances and wrote initially: “Now and then it happens that a professional listener can abandon criticism, sit back and surrender himself to the sheer enjoyment of what he is hearing. Such an occasion was the recital given by Mr. Björling on Sunday night.” He continued: “He belongs to that happy but limited order of singers who have at command naturally distinguished vocal organs.” He also praised Jussi for “unlike so many of his contemporaries [he] doesn’t allow free play to artless platform mannerisms.”
Like several other reviewers he also noted the violent ovations that met Jussi. “Enthusiastic, almost hysterical applause” wrote one and another added that the tenor’s “ringing, wonderfully beautiful tones” were repeatedly drowned by the listeners’ “rousing applause, bravos and foot stomping”. These are descriptions that are recurrent from all the eight concerts. Helmer Enwall, the impresario, “attributed the violent ovations to the South African public’s being unaccustomed to hearing singers in their prime. Singers usually put South Africa, so far off the beaten track, on their itinerary in their declining years.”
In Rand Daily Mail the signature D.S.L. knew no boundaries for his enthusiasm: “The singing we heard last night was in a class by itself, not only because the singer has one of those god-gifted instruments which come all too rarely in the human race, but because he uses it with very special art. Jussi Björling singing German lieder, Russian art songs, English ballads and Italian and French arias, did not sing like a German or Russian or Italian or Frenchman. He sang each song with a purity of style which made it his own. Unlike other famous singers, particularly of the Latin schools, he did not display the mechanics of his craft. He showed only the finished article. There were no slides towards upper reaches, no exhaustion in the sustained top note, no breathless breaks, no wild gesticulation. The beauty of the cantabile, the tender sotto voce, the long sostenuto were all in the voice – indeed the crowded house could hardly contain its enthusiasm long enough to allow him to attain his full compass. It was in the operatic arias that he most obviously commanded the open-throated ease that made the audience vocal in its applause, but there was no less to admire in the Schubert songs (notablyDie böse Farbe) or the Brahms (especially Die Mainacht) or the Rachmaninoff (particularly In the silence of the night). While all could applaud a singer who gave four major arias in succession with equal freshness and èclat, perhaps not so many appreciated the subtle difference in style between the Flower Song from Carmen (truly French) and the Italian numbers.”
Jussi in a bicycle trailer, Durban
After the concert in Durban on 24 August The Sunday Tribunepublished an extensive article under the heading Björling’s Singing was Perfection. The writer, “The Understudy”, opened somewhat disarming with:
Cartoon of Jock Leyden from a concert in Durban
What I will say, however, is that I can recognize perfection when I hear it – and I heard it when I listened this week to Jussi Björling in the Durban City Hall. Alex Cherniavsky, the impresario, had told me what to expect, of course, but for once Alex hadn’t gilded his lily enough. Mr Björling was all he had described to be, and more. I have never heard a richer, purer, more golden voice than that of Mr Björling. A tenor of great range and flexibility, of truly astonishing power, he caps these gifts with a technique of phrasing and interpretation that is superb. To listen to him in that packed City Hall was truly an emotional and intellectual experience that I shall not easily forget.”
Two days later the Alhambra Theatre in Cape Town was on the schedule. Sold out of course and an unsigned article in The Cape Argusagain extolled Jussi to the skies: “Mr. Björling is a singer in the Tauber tradition, which is to say that he sings with effortless grace and refrains, in the main, from the ear-splitting bellows in which equally celebrated – but, alas, less musicianly - tenors indulge. Mr Björling’s voice is a human instrument of rare quality. Allied to it is a keen musical intelligence (which provided some of the best singing of the evening in the lieder) and great personal charm (which won him the almost hysterical applause of a full house at the Alhambra). In addition he has a vast vocal technique ranging from full-blooded heroic notes to exquisitely soft fluid tones reminiscent of Richard Tauber in his heyday.”
Swedish ambassador G Magnusson and his wife meet up in Cape Town
There were, however, also complaints – but not against Jussi’s singing. In The Star of 23 August the below irritated letter to the editor was published:
“I deplore the behaviour of some of the public who arrived so very late to hear a singer of such repute. The concert was due to commence at 8.15 p.m. but it was well after 8.30 p.m. before it did so and even after the first item people were still arriving. Surely they could have shown better manners.
I also think that the seating and ‘floral’ arrangements could have been improved upon. Not a flower was to be seen anywhere. The new seats which were so much publicized recently were very few and far between. My one and only pair of good nylons suffered severe damage as I endeavoured to squeeze into my seat, resulting in my seat costing rather more than 15s.”
On 29 August Jussi was back in Johannesburg and appeared in City Hall together with The S.A.B.C. Orchestra (The South African Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra) conducted by Jeremy Schulman.
Schubert: Overture from Rosamunda
Handel: Ombra mai fu from Serse
Grieg: Norwegian Dance No. 4
I Love Thee
Wolf-Ferrari: Intermezzo from I gioielli della Madonna
Verdi: Ingemisco from Requiem
Rossini: Overture from L’Italiana in Algeri
Donizetti: Una furtiva lagrima from L’elisir d’amore
Giordano: Come un bal di di maggio from Andrea Chenier
Wolf-Ferrari: Intermezzo from I quattro rusteghi
Mascagni: Addio alla madre from Cavalleria rusticana
The assiduous D.S.L. of Rand Daily Mail was present again and enjoyed the proceedings as much as on the previous concerts, maybe even more: “No one could mind if Jussi Björling sang the same thing twenty times. It was therefore no diminution of pleasure last night that, at his farewell appearance in Johannesburg City Hall he repeated with the S.A.B.C. Orchestra under Jeremy Schulman several of the works he had performed at his third recital. The real thrills came, however, with two arias which he had not previously given here. Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore brought cantabile singing which even Jussi Björling has not done better here. And having the orchestra s background, we now had the new experience of the singer’s easy compass of both the emotions and tessitura of operatic arias. Yet more was to come. In the Addio alla madre from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana Jussi Björling went beyond anything he had given us in this or any other of his concerts. Temperament and voice held nothing back, making this and ‘addio’ we shall all remember.” He also described the reactions of the audience: “stamping, shouting whistling”.
The concert was broadcast and should have had the same enthusiastic reception in front of the radio receivers as in City Hall. But there was a fly in the ointment, according to a letter to the editor, published in bothThe Star and The Cape Argus:
“Several hundred thousand South Africans must have made up Jussi Björling’s radio audience on Sunday night when the golden-voiced tenor from Sweden sang in Johannesburg City Hall with the S.A.B.C. Orchestra. He evoked a storm of rapturous applause after his final aria. ‘Never has there been such an ovation in this hall. Never, never’ declared the enthusiastic radio announcer-turned-music critic. And the electrifying volume of hand-claps echoed from loudspeakers from Natal to Namaqualand. But the vast radio audience was hardly prepared for the dismal anti-climax. Instead of hearing the encores that Björling gave, listeners were switched back to the studio, ‘because there was no further time left for the relay on this red-letter concert’. Then came a calm mild voice from the studio saying: ‘As there is 15 minutes before the next item on our programme some piano records will now be played’.”
There was a response on 2 September that this was not S.A.B.C.’s fault: To the disappointment of the audience, Mr Björling didn’t give an encore. The S.A.B.C. announcer said: ‘It seems about impossible that Mr Björling will be able to get away without giving an encore, but I am afraid owing to time that is not possible …”
The concert was obviously not recorded by the radio company, but considering the number of people listening over the radio there should have been someone who owned a tape recorder and knew how to use it. Maybe there does exist after all a tape somewhere, which might pop up one day …?!
After three days’ rest the Alhambra Theatre in Cape Town was visited again. This time there was also an orchestra at hand, the Cape Town Municipal Orchestra under Fritz Schuurman. But by way of introduction Jussi sang Ombra mai fu and three Grieg songs with Newton at the piano. With the orchestra he then sang Ingemisco, Una furtive lagrima, Come in bel di di Maggio and Addio alla madre.“Singing of sheer delight and perfection was heard last night”, said the review next day and continued: “Mr. Björling possesses a voice of rare beauty, with qualities rich and golden, sweet and silver. These were coupled with perfect musicianship and taste, amazing and superb breath-control, and excellent diction.”
And so it was time for the finale of the tour in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa since 1910, situated fifty kilometres north of Johannesburg. Also here the enthusiasm was on top “and the cries of ‘Bravo!’ and ‘Encore!' seemed to go on forever”, Anna-Lisa wrote. “It was a remarkably successful concert tour, one of his most jubilant ever, and Jussi was especially happy when at the end he received his reward: a safari in Kruger National Park.”
Anna-Lisa also had her reward. At a dinner with Ernest Oppenheimer, the man who controlled the global diamond trade, the cunning Ivor Newton mentioned that Jussi would very much like to buy a diamond for his wife. Oppenheimer answered: “Well, he has come to the right place. Come to my office tomorrow, and my assistant will help you.” Anna-Lisa describes what fabulous stones that were on display, and the assistant must have had special instructions from Mr. Oppenheimer, because the prices were lower than they had expected. Jussi bought a stone that was more expensive than planned, but Anna-Lisa didn’t mind. “How could I ever say no to my husband?”
Then only the journey home remained – in itself a trial. It was gilded, though, by an incident at the Jan Smuts Airport. Anna-Lisa reminisces:
“While we were waiting for our plane home, a little girl from the Swedish colony walked up to Jussi. She curtsied prettily and presented him with a basked containing her gift: a little black poodle pup. Ever since we had given up Murre we’d wanted another pet, but because we travelled so much, we never got one. Now, faced with faît accompli, we were overjoyed. There was only one problem – the tiny, wriggling bundle was supposed to be quarantined. I went to the airport manager and asked him to help us. ‘Take him with you on the plane,’ he said. ‘But don’t tell anyone that I gave you permission.’
The puppy became the darling of the whole plane. Just before landing in Copenhagen, we gave him a sleeping pill, and then I handed him to Jussi. ‘I took care of him the whole way; now it’s your turn!’ Jussi took the basket and draped his camel’s hair coat over it. The puppy slept all the way to Stockholm. At Bromma Airport a swarm of journalists met us, one of whom asked in the midst of the huge commotion, ‘May I help you?’
The parents are welcome by the children at Bromma, Stockholm
‘Yes,’ Jussi replied casually, ‘take this!’ and he handed over the basket and the coat. The reporter felt something stir under the coat, but he didn’t say a word, and that is how our contraband poodle made his grand entrance into Sweden. Our faithful friend Bongo, as we called him, had a long and happy life, and he learned enough Swedish to obey – or ignore – some commands. He was a wonderful comfort to me in the dreadful emptiness that followed Jussi’s death.”
The English pianist Ivor Newton (1892 – 1981) was for many years one of the most outstanding accompanists in the world and one of the first to elevate the accompanist as an equal partner to the soloist. The list of the musicians and singers he cooperated with during a career of almost 60 years is like reading the “Who’s Who?” of classical music. Here are some of the best known in alphabetical order: Jussi Björling, Maria Callas, Pablo Casals, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Kirsten Flagstad, Beniamino Gigli, Ida Haendel, Victoria de los Angeles, John McCormack, Nellie Melba, Yehudi Menuhin, Lily Pons, Tito Schipa, Elisabeth Schumann, Fjodor Sjaljapin, Conchita Supervia, Maggie Teyte and Eugène Ysaÿe.
That he was a brilliant pianist is evident not least from the reviews from the South Africa tour, where the critics eulogize his achievement. The reviewers of that time could otherwise be pretty parsimonious in that respect.
E. B. Jacobson, quoted several times in the main article, finished his review from the first concert thus: “Notice of this concert would not be complete without unstinted tribute to Ivor Newton, whose superb accompaniments were an integral part of the proceedings. His infinite understanding, his unfailing discretion, his exquisite delicacy of touch, revealed Mr. Newton as a master craftsman and it was a pleasure to observe Mr. Björling’s repeated and generous acknowledgement of his artistic collaboration.”
In Rand Daily Mail the signature D.L.S. wrote: “And what partnership from Ivor Newton! One hardly missed the orchestra, the piano was so eloquent.” And Oliver Walker in The Star was just as enthusiastic: “Actually there were two artists on the platform last night. The other was Ivor Newton, whose accompaniments, most notably in the Schubert lieder, were as handsome a framework as any singer could desire.” After the concert in Durban, Redvere Hains of The Natal Dailyexpressed himselft thus: “If Jussi Björling was the spell-weaving magician with his voice last night, accompanist Ivor Newton was the wizard who supplied the piano setting for his art. Chaliapin, the celebrated Russian bass, once declared that the perfect accompanist was one possessing ‘the fingers of a virtuoso, the head of a musician and the heart of an artist.‘ Mr. Newton steps surely into this category.”