Friday, 6 February 2009

Ben Heppner at the Barbican Hall

Ben Heppner is a very big Canadian with a good big heldentenor voice. It's not my favourite type of voice in the world but it can thoroughly fill the Barbican Hall and is especially good when belting. Piano: Thomas Muraco.

The Barbican did not handle this event terribly well. He announced a change in the song order for the Strauss songs, and said he'd asked the Barbican to change the programme weeks ago but they hadn't done it so he had to tell the audience in advance what order the songs were so they would not get confused following the translations. Later in the shop we found not a single one of his recordings. Actually I noticed (though I didn't look carefully) that the shop didn't have any Quasthoff recordings either - or any copies of his autobiography - even though his face is on every wall you look.
Maybe it is time someone with a genuine interest in the programme started running the bookshop. They would do it differently in America.

In this recital he sang a very interesting mixture of songs in German, English, French and Italian. The Schubert songs were all about God, a fact that the programme writer clearly found very uncomfortable. Time and time again I see the religious faith of composers and writers of the nineteenth century and before either explained away, ignored or somehow downgraded.

The four songs by Richard Strauss ended with a setting of a poem by Dehmel: Befreit (Freed) which is a man speaking to his dying wife, which I loved.

There were three Benjamin Britten songs, one a setting of a powerful poem by John Donne about faith and chastity and the other two really wonderful Hardy poems about country life - the Choirmaster's Funeral - which Heppner characterised and dramatised - and Songsters. I especially loved the poem about the birds who only a few months ago were grains and seeds:

The thrushes sing as the sun is going
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand new birds of twelvemonths' growing,
Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
Nor thrushes,
But only particles of gran,
And earth and air and rain.

I wasn't so interested by the Duparc songs in French though Dan liked them, but the recital finished with four Italian songs by four operatic composers - one each by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. They were all absolutely humdingers and I adored them.

Heppner sang 3 encores. The audience was not by any means all old people - there were quite a lot of young folk - probably an accurate cross section of the population....the old man next to hme had an annoying habit of rubbing his hands during a song, making a horribly crepey papery sound.

Fashion note: Lounge suits. Muraco was sporting a very natty waistcoat in embroidered Chinese silk in kingfisher blue. Ben Heppner sports a curious hair colour: Ben, it's okay to grey.

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