Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Barton / Heggie @ Barbican Hall, London

5 December 2021


Barton and Heggie relish being back in front of a live audience.

Barbican Hall

Barbican Hall (Photo: Dion Barrett)

Jamie Barton and Jake Heggie were pleased to be here. Their various introductions and banter over the evening made that very clear, and who can blame them? They have only recently started performing live again and, as Barton pointed out, no virtual concert, irrespective of how invaluable they have proved to be, can carry the same thrill of connecting with an audience in the same room. Barton certainly knows how to play to a crowd to generate an extra layer of excitement in her recitals, which not only makes the audience feel valued but also an active part of the experience. With the Barbican Hall stage containing just a piano and table for water, and the main source of illumination coming from low hanging bare lightbulbs, the atmosphere felt highly intimate from the outset.

With this being a celebration of what so many of us have missed for so long, the recital’s main theme was music in its own right, and began with Heggie’s ‘Music’ from The Breaking Waves and Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’ from Oedipus as arranged by Britten. While these are extremely different pieces that place varying demands on a soloist, in both Barton revealed a sound that is so rich and secure that it can then be taken to an infinite number of places in order to fulfil what the music requires. In this way, the utterances of ‘drop’ in the latter piece were made suitably onomatopoeic with the exception of one which was far heavier, thus implying that an enormous number of drops can create a deluge. Barton revealed her ability to generate some extremely resonant low notes and equally powerful top ones, and if for my taste the transition to these did not always feel particularly smooth, that was certainly deliberate on her part.

During the first half, Barton also treated us to impeccable performances of Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’, ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ and ‘Rastlose Liebe’ and Brahms’ ‘Unbewegte Laue Luft’ (which she sang when she won Cardiff Singer of the World in 2013), ‘Meine Liebe ist Grün’ and ‘Von ewiger Liebe’. It was, however, in four songs by Florence Price – ‘We Have Tomorrow’, ‘The Poet and his Song’, ‘Night’ and ‘Hold Fast to Dreams’ – that she was best able to project her own personality. These works deserve to be far better known, and so it was good to hear Barton championing them. In her half gold patterned, half black dress, with her hand frequently resting on the piano, she performed these songs as if she was engaging in a conversation with us or relating a tale. In this way, the ‘yes’ of the word ‘yesterday’ in the first song was virtually spoken to make a point in its own right, while the songs as a whole enabled Barton to contrast moments of quiet contemplation or even agitation alongside others, such as the ending to the final song, of absolute power.

“Barton certainly knows how to play to a crowd to generate an extra layer of excitement…”

If Heggie’s accompaniment of the Schubert and Brahms songs was good, he rose to another level again when accompanying his own pieces in the second half. First came his song cycle What I Miss the Most, which was written when he (and Barton) asked thirty friends what they missed during lockdown, and then set five of their favourite responses to music. With the chosen ones coming from such high profile names as Joyce DiDonato and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the surprise was that few of these suggested what one might have expected (Heggie was anticipating something ‘brassy and fun’ from Patti LuPone but she said she didn’t miss much as she felt so ‘blissed out’ with her family) and yet all included things to which we can all relate. An additional layer of interest comes from each song carrying a single word title that often signifies different things. For example, Ginsburg, who sadly died only a few months later, missed ‘music’, but LuPone appreciated ‘time’, while in the case of DiDonato ‘order’ referred to what she missed day to day but also to the idea of orders being handed down from above. Heggie wrote the cycle especially for Barton and she proved to be in her element, tackling music that he had clearly designed to demonstrate her penchant for conveying a vast range of textures, emotions and dynamics. The words similarly proved perfect for her as she was able to relate them as if she was simply speaking to us.

The main programme continued with ‘In the beginning…’ and ‘Once upon a universe’ from Heggie’s Of Gods and Cats which saw, among other things, Heggie running his fingers across the keys to convey the sound of a cat walking on them, and Barton creating a range of astutely observed feline sounds. It then concluded with his Iconic Legacies: First Ladies at the Smithsonian, which across its four songs considers the significance to their respective wives of Lincoln’s hat from the night he was assassinated, and a Christmas card that President Kennedy signed just hours before his death. The cycle is not all about tragic events, however, with the final song focusing on The Muppets to mark the occasion when Barbara Bush appeared on Sesame Street as part of her literacy campaign. This ended the recital in a suitably upbeat fashion before Barton offered an immaculate performance of Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ by way of an encore.

Jake Heggie and Jamie Barton’s album Unexpected Shadows, which includes Of Gods and Cats and Iconic Legacies: First Ladies at the Smithsonian, is currently available on the Pentatone label.


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