Ben Heppner, quite possibly the leading Wagnerian tenor of the day, has been presenting an improbable recital tour around the world the past few years. The Sunday evening event at Baltimore's Shriver Hall marked his first recital in Baltimore and his only appearance in the area this season. Could the choice of repertory -- an unlikely combination of Scandinavian and Russian art songs with Italian schmaltz -- explain the disappointing under-attendance?
Photo of tenor Ben Heppner by Marco Borggreve,
courtesy of benheppner.com
The opening set was in German, Edvard Grieg's Six German Songs, op. 48. Heppner demonstrated not only his excellent German pronunciation and diction but his ability to spin out a long-breathed legato line in the slower songs of this sometimes somber set, especially no. 2 (Dereinst, Gedanken mein) and no. 5 (Zur Rosenzeit). So many (nearly all) of Grieg's songs were composed for his singer wife that it is odd to hear Heppner sing them, especially the fourth song (Der verschwiegne Nachtigall), with its naughty red-lipped narratrix (Anne Sofie von Otter has made a favorite recording of the composer's songs). After producing an admirable compressed -- but not constrained -- sound in the more interior songs, Heppner opened up his sound in the last song, giving an expansive, heroic reading of Ein Traum's triumphant exultation. Pianist Thomas Muraco provided a sensitive but full-bodied musical fabric for Heppner, with charming pictorial effects like the chimes in the first song and the nightingale's song in the fourth.
The mood was even more somber in the selection of Sibelius songs, always a treat to hear. Again the combination of Muraco and Heppner produced an evocative rendition of these often grim songs. The dream-like Soluppgång (op. 37, no. 3) captured the mythic, near-disturbing quality of the knight's dream and his overtone-laden horn call in the piano. Heppner is to be commended for the consistently beautiful tone of these songs, with a smooth vocal production that always hits the center of the pitch. (Heppner's problems with vocal cracking, which have raised their head in the past five years or so, were evident only in one fleeting case, and not on a high note.) His pronunciation of Swedish and Finnish seemed well coached, without myself claiming any expertise, and his delight in the strange Scandanavian sounds came across at moments like the stunning, soft conclusion to Säv, säv, susa (op. 36, no. 4).
Tess Crebbin and Sissy von Kotzebue, Ben Heppner in recital (ConcertoNet, May 13, 2004)
Harvey Steiman, Ben Heppner Recital (MusicWeb International, January 16, 2005)
Other Reviews from 2005
Allan Kozinn, Music in Review; Ben Heppner (New York Times, October 27, 2006)
Tim Smith, Heppner delivers 'goosebump moments' (Baltimore Sun, November 29, 2007)
---, Tenor Heppner's fresh 'Roses' (Baltimore Sun, December 4, 2007)
The second half began with a set of lovely Tchaikovsky songs, for which Heppner wisely used scores, having missed some of the words in the first half (like the last stanza of Grieg's Der Rosenzeit). The songs are some of the least cloying works in Tchaikovsky's oeuvre, and these were all performed with skill and bared emotion, full of bitter memories and aching melancholy. When Heppner appeared for his final set of Paolo Tosti songs, he was visibly relieved, announcing a less formal tone by throwing his bow tie into the audience and bantering with his listeners.
Relating a humorous story about audiences' tendency to clap after every song, he encouraged us not to feel constrained by formal conventions, an exhortation that some in the audience took too literally to heart. There were some lovely moments in this over-the-top set, especially at the words "Torno, caro ideal" in the splendid Ideale. Three encores satisfied the enthusiastic audience, each more moving than what came before it: the arietta Amor ti vieta from Fedora, Lehar's Dein ist mein ganzes Herz (with the last statement done effectively in English), and the sentimental ballad Roses Are Shining in Picardy. Having also heard it as an encore from Thomas Hampson has finally erased the memory of Perry Como from my brain.
Ben Heppner will present this recital four times in January, at venues in Georgia and Florida. The next concert in the remarkable season at Shriver Hall is another song recital, by American baritone Nathan Gunn. We trust that more of you will be there.