Ben Heppner is an enormously likeable presence on the concert platform, and of course a superlative artist, but one gets a sense that he’s not always comfortable as a recitalist.
If you’ve never heard Schubert sung as though it were Wagner, Barbican Hall was the place to be on Friday night.
In the first of four Schubert songs, Heppner attacked “Dem Undenlichen” as he would “In Fernem Land” from Lohengrin. The sound was magnificent but it didn’t quite sound right. He went along with the gentler, more introspective tone of “Im Abendrot” but it still felt as though this is not what the Canadian tenor does best.
Two more Schubert lieder followed (“Gott im Frhling” and “Die Allmacht”) and the feeling of disconnect between artist and material continued. The brief first half just 35 minutes came to an end with four Strauss songs and this felt like a better fit. Opening with the much-loved “Zueignung”, Heppner held forth with a flood of thrilling sound, although the remaining lesser-known numbers didn’t rise to quite the same heights.
Heppner is a tenor with a well-recorded history of vocal problems and there was some evidence of it here, with some slight cracking and an occasional wandering around the notes. The second half, more substantial in length, was more testing. Three Britten songs reminded us of his marvellous Peter Grimes but a series of Duparc songs seemed more off course again, with “Extase” and “Phidyl” lacking much-needed sensuality.
He finished with four songs (not stage arias) by Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Verdi’s “Brindisi” no, not that one had the tenor fondling a water glass (there had been a tentative characterisation of the vicar in Britten’s “The Choirmaster’s Burial” earlier) but a sense of fun was only hinted at.
The final scheduled song was Puccini’s “Canto d’anime”, reminiscent of “Firenze come un albero” from Gianni Schicchi, which brought some of the best sounds of the evening. Heppner finally loosened up with the encores (including “Amor ti vieta” and a rumbustious “Dein ist Mein Ganzes Herz”) leaving the audience in a warmed-up and appreciative mood. It would have been a great place to start.
This was one strictly for the fans. Heppner is a great artist, one of the world’s best heldentenors, who deserves greater recognition in the UK but this programme cried out for something better suited to him. A chunk or two of Wagner would have filled the void.
Heppner was accompanied by the American pianist/conductor Thomas Muraco.