Wonderful, moving tribute to Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017) by Nils-Göran Olve. Infinitely better than most media memorials. Well worth sharing ! Below, a clip of Gedda singing Janácek The Diary of One who Disappeared, in 1984.
During his long career, Gedda sang almost annually in his hometown Stockholm: at the Royal Opera 1952-1992, in concerts and in smaller venues until around 2000. I heard him regularly from around 1960 when I was 12: The Duke, Cavaradossi, Lensky, Hoffmann, Lohengrin, Gustav III (aka Riccardo) and Kristian II (in Naumann’s Gustav Vasa) are the parts I remember offhand, but also many recitals, Swedish Radio recording of Pelléas (in Swedish), orchestral concerts, and stray appearances in benefits. He lived here and in Switzerland and seemed very willing to participate when asked. He also was consulted by many singers. One told me how Gedda had helped him a lot through his very thorough knowledge of vocal technique, but almost intimidated him by showing how to sing some high note which gave the student – an established singer – difficulties. Gedda was past 80 and had not warmed up his voice, but struck the key on the piano and just sang the note. On the other hand, he was said (and claimed himself) to be shy, and his third wife (from 1997) was rumoured to protect him, so none of the Friends associations in Stockholm managed to invite him for a meeting. He once promised personally to come to the Folk Opera Friends, who gained a lot of new members who wanted to attend when they announced it. But it was cancelled – his wife rang up and said “sorry” a few weeks ahead.
People I know claim that he was “ready” as a singer already at age 22 or 23, although the voice then was much smaller. He made his famous debut at the Stockholm Opera in early 1952 when he was almost 27 – an age many tenors are making international debuts – but made up for that by being picked up by Walter Legge of EMI (and Schwarzkopf’s husband) the same year, and starting the enormous series of recordings that would go on for 50 years (if we include his late cameo parts). This was the age when so much was recorded for the first time, and Gedda was dependable, versatile, read music well and knew languages. He had a mixed background and spoke Swedish, Russian and German already as a child, also singing publicly from music (and not only by ear) as a boy soprano. His recordings (also due to the singers and conductors he collaborated with) will remain references for as long anyone cares about this repertoire. I don’t think he was loved by his Swedish audience in the way Jussi Björling and, in a different way, Birgit Nilsson were. Jussi’s national songs are still part of the “Swedish soul” and Birgit’s appearances on talk-shows, telling her stories and laughing loudly, get an occasional airing on TV. (Her artistic greatness is more difficult to fathom from her recordings.)
Gedda’s personality was more aloof, and his voice and interpretation struck many as “studied” and “technical”. In a way they of course were, and from around age 40 he developed a huge range of vocal colours. Watching him sing in later years, especially in concert, you saw his body working from the toes up, sometimes swaying a bit, and the volume of the sound grew a lot during the first 10 or 15 years I heard him. But he retained his high Russian-style mezza voce to the end. In younger years he was quite good looking and tall for a tenor, not a spontaneous great actor, but different from many in his position he would always give the impression of throwing himself into what the director asked from him.