Ben Heppner & Thomas Muraco at the Barbican

Schubert
Dem Unendlichen, D291; Im Abendrot, D799; Gott im Frühling, D448;Die Allmacht, D852
Strauss
Zueignung, Op.10/1; Das Rosenband, Op.36/1; Du meines Herzens Krönelein, Op.21/2; Befreit, Op.39/4
Britten
The Holy Sonnets of John Donne, Op.35 – Batter My Heart
Winter Words, Op.52 – The Choirmaster’s Burial; Proud Songsters
Duparc
Extase; Chanson triste; Le manoir de Rosemonde; Phidylé
Bellini
Dolente imagine di Fille mia
Donizetti
Su l’onda tremola
Verdi
Brindisi
Puccini
Conto d’anime

Ben Heppner (tenor) & Thomas Muraco (piano)


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 6 February, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Ben HeppnerThe Canadian dramatic tenor Ben Heppner brought a cosmopolitan recital programme to a rather sparsely populated Barbican Hall (only the Stalls area was open). The repertoire tested his ability to scale down his heroic voice to the lyrical demands of Art-Song from several European traditions. Success was uneven but the loyalty of his fans was retained throughout, indeed they were fed increasingly tasty morsels as the evening wore on.

First came the serious stuff. Two of the four Schubert songs seemed to be within the orbit of a voice of this size. “Dem Unendlichen”, with its declamatory passages and resplendent climax, was an encouraging start but “Die Allmacht”, a piece recorded by Kirsten Flagstad with absolute security of line, proved itself less well suited to Heppner’s voice, the sterling silver of whose top notes are accompanied by baser metal in the middle voice. The lightness of touch required for “Gott im Frühling” was certainly there in Thomas Muraco’s bubbling keyboard patterns but Heppner found this song too testing to lose vocal weight, while the strain of maintaining sufficient supplies of breath in the sublime “Im Abendrot” adversely affected the singer’s pitch; he was persistently on the flat side and was audibly stretching upwards.

The main positive that emanated from Heppner’s Richard Strauss group was his affection for the music. He can clearly visualise mentally how to convey that in his articulation of words and music but the voice is not suited to skip airily across the verbal landscape of “Du meines Herzens Krönelein”, where the words were clogged with tone and the top notes squeezed. Only in the concluding verse did he offer a true mezza voce. His partner dropped numerous pearls in “Das Rosenband” but Heppner was awkward, the tone sometimes crushing the poetry. In “Befreit”, a song more suited to a soaring soprano, he hit the target in some respects: there was genuine contrast and when pressure was applied to the line it was an appropriate response to the intensity of the poet’s ideas. It was just a pity that the top notes, so freely ringing at forte, lacked sweetness in less than full voice.

Heppner’s inclusion of Duparc mélodies did not convince me that songs of such refinement and fastidiousness are anything but misfits in the hands of a dramatic tenor. Again, the spirit was willing and occasional effects could be applauded. Heppner’s voice sometimes floated beautifully above Muraco’s triplets in “Chanson triste”, the dreamy passage amidst the mostly spiky rhythms of “Le manoir de Rosemonde”, the appreciation of the structure of “Phidylé” and the controlled handling of the slowly evolving climax of that song were admirable. Muraco took the lead estimably in establishing mood, sultry in “Extase”, and tranquil in “Phidylé”. It was regrettable that Heppner found it so palpably hard to restrain his tone in the repeat of “Repose…”; the bulge in it at this magical moment was uncomfortable to hear. The upward slide at “Du souffle de la bien aimée” in “Extase” can only be described as ugly.

Thomas Muraco. Photograph: Christian SteinerFraming the Duparc settings were the undoubted success stories of the evening, English and Italian songs. The distinction of a short Britten group was that Heppner did full justice both to music and poetry. In the chattering, conversational setting of John Donne’s “Batter my heart” the poet’s violent imagery, cascades of active verbs and antitheses came tumbling out as if in a single breath. Then Heppner switched smoothly into the rough-hewn poetic style adopted by Thomas Hardy for his mellow comic tale of provincial church intrigue from the “Winter Words” cycle. The singer used a range of non-vocal resources to underline narrative and characters, including spectacles, which were thoughtfully removed and twirled as the choirmaster tentatively broached his preferred funeral arrangements, then planted on the end of his nose to represent the parsimonious vicar. Both performers made the most of the melting lyricism in Britten’s music for the choirmaster himself. Muraco vividly enacted the comic acceleration of the music-free funeral before its supernatural replacement brought a return to the lilting music associated with the angels. A deadpan final couplet was followed by a telling silence from the audience, its members’ warmth towards both the performers growing.

The singer’s enunciation was equally crisp in the group of Italian songs. Heppner seemed to find that the seamless phrasing of Bellini allied to the Italian language massaged the voice better than the earlier German and French songs. Legato and mezza voce were deployed in this classical, heartfelt elegy. Donizetti was represented by a song of courtship, seasoned with irony as the wooer assumed a formal role as lover, including a nudge and a wink to the audience. The occasional divisions were rather smudged but the character was endearing.Verdi’s “Brindisi” (his first version) represented that composer’s latent brashness, seconded by the performers’ elan. Each verse was a different stage in the onset of drunkenness: first talkativeness, then aggression, finally obliviousness to pain and suffering. The whoop of joy Heppner produced misled some members of the audience into applauding prematurely. The Puccini song displayed that composer’s characteristic melodic shape and demands for high notes and Heppner seemed entirely at home in the idiom, making me wonder why only “Turandot” of his operas is in the singer’s repertoire.

With the encores the temperature unusually continued to rise. A deftness of touch and a twinkle in the eye were brought forward for “Es ist nur so der Lauf der Welt”. The big operatic voice was unleashed in “Amor ti vieta” and its golden tone poured out in a bilingual “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” which caused the audience to erupt. It was easy to be carried away and to admire how well, despite some awkward moments, Heppner had succeeded in coming down to earth from the vocal mountains of Wagner, which he normally inhabits.

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