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What a 'crossover' album should be!
on August 31, 2001
In general, I hate it when classical singers make 'crossover' recordings. Usually the singer has no idea how to sing 'pop' material in anything like the proper style - even someone who is singing it because he or she genuinely likes the music and not just to milk cash from the unsuspecting masses. But there are always exceptions to a rule, and this CD is one of them. Ben Heppner here scales down his huge operatic voice and shows his 'secret heart', a more intimate side of his musical personality.
There is no question that Heppner is one of the greatest tenors of our age. He is often compared with his fellow Canadian Jon Vickers (with whom he shares much of his repertory) but especially here, he is beginning to remind me more and more of Jussi Bjorling, and I can think of no higher compliment. Part of this is because Bjorling actually sang quite a bit of repertory similar to what Heppner sings here, but more importantly, both voices have an ideal combination of power and sweetness. Heppner's is essentially a very lyric voice despite its large size, and he is capable of great tonal beauty and sensitivity. This not only makes his Wagner, Giordano, and Berlioz very special, but makes him equally adept with the gentle little gems he sings on this disc. He is helped somewhat by the fact that these songs, most of which were written in the very early part of the 20th century, are a lot closer to the 'classical' style than more modern pop. But what really makes Heppner perfect for this material is his total identification with the texts, his tenderness, and his utter sincerity. Also, his diction is superb - you won't need the printed texts to understand what he is singing. In the hands of a lesser singer, some of these old fashioned songs would be absolute treacle. But an artist like Heppner can raise up even 'substandard' compositions and give them the aura of greatness.
In the more upbeat songs, Heppner sings with the thrilling, heroic tone that has made him in demand in every opera house in the world. He makes 'Let All My Life Be Music' into his personal mission statement. 'Homing' was also a favorite of another great Wagnerian tenor, namely Lauritz Melchior. 'I Love Life!', complete with splendid high C, is sung with enough cheer and vigor to bring anybody out of a depression. But this repertory is often gentle and introspective, and Heppner can also easily fine down his voice to a splendid pianissimo, drawing you in and enticing you to pay attention as opposed to banging you over your head like many other tenors do. Ivor Novello's 'Love is My Reason For Living' and Ernest Charles' 'Let My Song Fill Your Heart' are light, gracious Viennese waltzes. The familiar 'Roses of Picardy', 'Bird Songs at Eventide' and 'I'll Be Seeing You' are also sung sweetly and caressingly. Two more Novello songs are among the best tracks on the album. 'Someday My Heart Will Awake', is soft, gentle, and nostalgic, rising to a passionate conclusion. 'We'll Gather Lilacs' is obviously a love song from Heppner to his wife Karen (to whom the entire album is dedicated), full of yearning and deeply moving.
The operetta selections are even more special. In the Serenade from 'The Student Prince', which is alone worth the price of the CD, Heppner makes something truly thrilling of the declaration 'Oh, hear my longing cry!/Oh, love me or I die!', and ends with not one but two spectacular high Cs. What a pity that the chances of him ever recording the entire operetta are so slim! The cajolingly sung title song from 'The Desert Song' is almost as fine, as is 'Love Me Tonight' from 'The Vagabond King'. Finally, the title song 'I'll Follow My Secret Heart', with yet another brilliant high C, makes a splendid finish to this very enjoyable album.
I should also give credit to noted composer and orchestrator Jonathan Tunick for his warm, rich, and perfectly scaled arrangements of these songs. Like Heppner, he finds the perfect mood for each piece and never engages in schmaltz that one might expect from some of this material. The only complaint I have about this disc is the one I have about many contemporary CDs - why is there only 54 minutes of music on a medium that can hold almost 80 minutes? There are assuredly more than 18 songs Heppner could have recorded in this vein. I would have liked to have seen more operetta items in particular. Although I suppose they couldn't have recorded the Drinking Song from 'The Student Prince' as well as the Serenade without a chorus, it would have been nice if 'Deep In My Heart, Dear' had been included. Still, the quality of what is there far outweighs the quantity. The excellent documentation, in German and French as well as English, includes a personal note from Heppner, biographies of all the composers as well as Heppner and Tunick, and complete song texts. The cover shows Heppner surrounded by red velvet, designed, amusingly enough, by Red Herring Productions!
Whether you're an opera lover who wants to hear a great tenor in a lighter mood, or a fan of early 20th century popular music who is curious to see what it sounds like sung by a genuinely great voice, this disc is essential. It is an excellent introduction to Heppner's artistry if you haven't experienced it before, and after listening to it you might want to try some of his opera CDs, both solo recitals and complete recordings. There are few voices that could serve as a better introduction for a neophyte to the wonderful world of opera. If only more 'crossover' singers (both classical and pop) had Heppner's musical integrity...