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Here is a labour of love indeed to rescue the Swedish tenor Jussi Björling from the longer, more brightly illuminated shadows cast by his illustrious peers Caruso and Gigli.

There’s certainly something Herculean about Stephen Hastings’ traversal of more than 400 recordings made by a prolific singer over a three-decade-long career, one who already had 53 operatic roles in his repertoire at the age of 30 (he would add only another two in the 19 years before his early death in 1960) and who made his first recording at the age of nine. Something heroic, too, in attempting as thorough-going and detailed an analysis of each of the recordings as is offered here by the long-standing Milan correspondent of Opera News and editor in chief of the Italian monthly Musica.

The Björling Sound is a treasure trove waiting to be plundered by admirers of a singer whose phrasing was subtle and sensitive enough to merit comparison with Jascha Heifetz’s artistry on the violin, and no less valuable for anyone interested in the history of recorded classical music as the industry defined itself in the formative years between 78s and vinyl stereo.

Hastings writes with an obvious love for and understanding of the tenor voice and its repertoire – which in Björling’s case stretched from Swedish folk songs to lieder and opera – and an incisive ability to interrogate and evoke the nuances of performance. He writes with a directness, clarity and honesty (altogether unflinching in dealing with the toll of Björling’s heavy drinking in later years) that sends the reader back to one recording after another or desperate to find an as yet unheard performance that calls to mind the erudition and enthusiasm of the late John Steane.

Björling’s fellow Swede Nicolai Gedda once lauded his compatriot for his ability to ‘sing straight to the national soul of Sweden’. Hastings’ remarkable book shows why his voice reached considerably further than his homeland and remains, half a century and more after his death, one of the greatest of all.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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