Finding encomia for Björling’s vocal artistry is about as difficult as finding grains of sand on a beach, but it seems extraordinary that so much of this praise comes from his colleagues and leading musicians. For his Swedish compatriot Elisabeth Söderström, ‘listening to Björling has always been my ultimate pleasure. He never made an ugly sound, and yet his voice was the most human, emotional instrument.’ Irene Dalis thought ‘he was the premier tenor in the world. Even yet, there has never been another voice equal to his.’ Arturo Toscanini – not notorious for admiring singers – exclaimed: ‘What a beautiful voice and what fine singing, all on the breath, a perfect technique. It is all tied together and his diction is very good too. Bravo!’ Regina Resnik claimed that a concert-opening performance of the ‘Ingemisco’ from Verdi’s Requiem at the Albert Hall ‘was probably one of the most beautifully sung five minutes that I have ever, ever heard in my life. So much so that I sat there crying like a child.’ Björling’s voice was not large, but was perfectly placed, possessed silvery brilliance, and permitted dynamic and coloristic shading at every point in its register – according to American critic Conrad L Osborne, Björling’s ‘mastery of line, his command of the classical [vocal] effects… is of a sort that makes even very fine singers seem faintly amateurish.’ Although his acting in staged opera sometimes struck observers as phlegmatic or perfunctory, the technical adroitness and expressive subtlety of his singing swept all before it. Best known for romantic tenor roles like Rodolfo (La bohème), Cavaradossi (Tosca), the Duke (Rigoletto), Manrico (Il trovatore), Faust, and Roméo (the latter two from Gounod’s operas), Björling occasionally performed or recorded heavier parts, and in concert his repertory also included operetta arias, Scandinavian songs and German Lieder. His many recordings document a remarkable consistency of vocal quality and high artistic standards.
In his own words: ‘I have one favourite role. It is Otello. What a part for a tenor! What an opera! What music! But you know something? I will never sing it [onstage]. It would damage my voice. I would not like that to happen.’
Greatest recording: Jussi Björling: Opera Arias (1936-1948) Naxos 8.110701