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Kesting Considers Björling in Historical Perspective, as One of the Twentieth Century’s Key Tenors after Caruso

By Kendall Svengalis

Jürgen Kesting is a prominent German music critic and author of the monumental three-volume Die grossen Sänger as well as of highly original studies of Callas and Pavarotti. In his lecture “The exception to every rule: the role of the tenor since Caruso,” Kesting provided a fascinating examination of Björling’s position among singers and key features of his vocal technique. He opened by playing Björling’s recording of Tosti’s “L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra” and comparing it with Caruso’s acoustical recording of the same song, noting especially Björling’s choice to sing in the style of Caruso. He traced the evolution of operatic recordings following Caruso’s initial efforts in 1902…and pointed out that Caruso became the archetypal tenor for his successors. In fact, Kesting suggested that Caruso’s death in 1921 and the first performance of Turandot in 1926 marked the end of traditional singers-opera for those performers [and audiences] who no longer were challenged by new works but instead simply attempted to equal idolized singers like Caruso and Titta Ruffo. It was a kind of petrification of old recordings by new recordings. One consequence was that opera houses during this era became museums of music, to some extent. Kesting contended that Björling could be considered the only true successor of Caruso, of his time, because he did not try to imitate the emotional gestures of Caruso, most of which had become crude and worn-out effects by the 1930s, heavily criticized in Great Britain and in the United States. Gigli, for example, despite his truly angelic voice, used a singing style of questionable taste where overindulgence in tonal sweetness often lapsed into mere sentimentality. Kesting recalled the reaction of Feodor Chaliapin, after having observed Gigli return to his dressing room in tears after a performance as Canio in Pagliacci. Chaliapin concluded that Gigli had shown himself to be an artistic dilettante. “The audience,” he said, “should be in tears, not the singer. It is not the artist who should be moved, but the audience.” As for Jussi Björling, Kesting asked “Has there ever been a young tenor of 19 or 20 with a voice as perfectly placed as Björling’s? It was a voice of a seraph and of a seducer. There are, as far as I see, few contradictory arguments with regard to the quality of the voice and the timbre. The timbre is the singer’s personality; it is his face which you can see ”with the eye of the ear,” as Wagner put it. When young, Björling’s voice was bright, dense, silvery, never dry, and full of athletic energy. When he was 24 or 25, he already commanded astonishing resonances, as you hear from his recordings from the Vienna State Opera in 1936-37.” Kesting further noted that Björling’s singing displayed a marvelous combination of restraint and brilliance, poetry and pathos. He speculated that while Björling has been described as an indifferent or lethargic actor, the reason may have been his striving for total concentration on his vocal acting based on musical expressiveness. He not only sang well technically, but was able to combine, as Reynaldo Hahn observed, the sound with the spirit. Björling may be counted as one of Caruso’s descendents, but he never became an imitator. Kesting concluded by quoting Goethe’s Faust: “What you inherit from your fathers, you must work to acquire, if you want truly to possess it.” Björling’s elegant phrasing was in part a rejection of the careless habits of Caruso’s successors, just as Caruso had worked to find a new style in his generation.