There are so many stories about the great Sir Thomas Beecham – some apocryphal I’m sure – and one of my favourites is about a recording session for his unsurpassed La Boheme. By happenstance Victoria de los Angles, Jussi Björling, Robert Merrill, Giorgio Tozzi, and Beecham were all in New York in the spring of 1956. In a spur of the moment decision EMI asked their American partner RCA to record the opera with Beecham conducting. The New York rehearsal and recording sessions were tightly scheduled over nine days. When it came time to record the poignant opening of Act 4 Beecham had Björling and Merrill repeat the scene several times. He didn’t suggest any changes or give any notes on their performances, he just requested that they do it again. After the fourth (perfect) take the recording engineer, knowing that time was running short, approached Sir Thomas and asked what he wanted done differently. He reportedly, smiled seraphically and said: Not a thing. I just love hearing those two sing together.
Sir Thomas was seldom wrong on things musical and on this one he hit the LP on the spindle. Rodolfo (Björling) and Marcello (Merrill) have parted from Mimi and Musetta and try to joke, unsuccessfully, over their heartbreak but the music tells us a different story. I honestly can’t think of another performance where the singing, playing and conducting capture so beautifully the bitter-sweetness of the moment.
Björling and Merrill often sang together on the stage at the old Met and in 1951 recorded a series of duets on 78s under conductor Renato Cellini. Included in the set is one of the most played and treasured souvenirs of operatic singing not just of the 20th century but of any time. The two singers reached heights that have never been surpassed in “Au fond du temple saint” from Georges Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles.
On this day in 1669: Citing poor eyesight, Samuel Pepys records the last event in his diary.