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Then came the final segment that everyone had been waiting for: Tosti. Heppner's relationship with Tosti is a special one. Considering his friendship with Puccini, some of Tosti's songs are perhaps the closest to opera that one can find in the Lieder genre. At first glance, Tosti with his salon repertoire seems to be a light, even a 'kitsch' composer, but this mistaken perception can only happen if one does not know the operatic quality of his other works, such as L'alba separa dalla luce l'ombra and In the hush of night that spans from low D sharp to high B. The climatic high phrases that Tosti composed, when he did compose them, are always beautifully prepared.

It was through L'alba separa that Heppner first became enthusiastic about Tosti and since then, this song has become so synonymous with Heppner that many people no longer think of another singer when thinking of this song. The Bel Canto orientation of Tosti's Lieder has led to a revival of this composer who threatened to be forgotten after the war when the rise of cinema and pop culture pushed salon performances out of the way as a form of public entertainment. Part of this revival is very much thanks Heppner who, because of his love for L'alba separa, decided to explore further Tosti songs and in 2003 brought out a CD with Deutsche Grammophon, titled Ideale -- Songs of Paolo Tosti. The most moving and dramatic of these Lieder on the CD also formed part of the recital: Io ti sento, which Tosti dedicated to Caruso, is a song of irresistible buoyancy with a text containing things like: 'I sense you in the sun that rises over the ocean'. It has since long become a hymn to any departed loved ones in anyone's life.

But Heppner chose to fittingly open his Tosti segment with Entra ('Enter') as he came back on stage, which he exited after each completed segment. It is a song full of passionate outpouring, which Heppner sang and acted in his best operatic manner. The moment he opened his mouth for Tosti, there seemed to be an instant change in Heppner, as though he were literally becoming defrosted, making the change from colder climates to warmer lands, as he turned to the audience with open arms while he sang and played the dramatic moments of Tosti with his facial expressions and his body language. Even before the accompanist had played the final note of the first song there was thunderous applause, at a point when the audience was expected to remain silent but they were unable to contain themselves and got swept away in the emotion of the moment. People shouted 'bravo' and could hardly remain in their seats. When Heppner launched into the next song, Guitar Song from Abruzzia, the same thing happened at the end. Heppner's performance suddenly had a much different, smoother quality and it became very clear that the real home of a tenor is in Italy for the language wraps itself around the tenor voice like a well-fitting coat. Io te siento was highly emotional, as could be expected, followed by the love-song Ideale which cannot be described as anything else than being carried forward by a piano dolce, a truly sweet piano that Heppner sang with heart-felt sensitivity, followed by a splendid forte. One female member of the audience noted after the concert: 'When Heppner sang this, one wishes for nothing more but to be the one he is singing to. He suddenly turns into the most beautiful man in the world because his soul shines through.'

Ben Heppner. Photo © Marco Borggreve/Deutsche Grammophon
Ben Heppner. Photo © Marco Borggreve/Deutsche Grammophon

The final song was the long-awaited L'alba separa -- it is a song about dying, but it is a song of such splendid operatic dramatic moments and so Puccini-like that it becomes, well and truly, the highlight of any Lieder evening. Heppner sings it with abandon, as he did on his CD, acting the text as he sings it. Audience members had tears in their eyes and the tenor himself trembled while he sang and his hands, hanging by his side, could be seen shaking with the emotional impact of this song. There were standing ovations before he had finished, and there was not one member of the audience who had not been touched by this splendid performance.

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Copyright © 18 May 2004 Tess Crebbin and Sissy von Kotzebue, Germany


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