Classical home listening: Jamie Barton sings Jake Heggie

The mezzo-soprano and composer join forces on an album of rich, raw immediacy. Elsewhere, explosive Strauss from Berlin, with Louise Alder on glorious form

• Of the many connections between Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham and Jamie Barton – all mega-star American mezzo-sopranos – one fact in particular unites them: their desire to perform music by the American composer Jake Heggie, best known for his opera Dead Man Walking (2000), in which all have sung the lead role of Sister Helen Prejean. On Unexpected Shadows (Pentatone; released 18 September), Barton performs 16 songs by Heggie, with the composer at the piano. The opening track, Music, about a man on death row hearing music (text by Prejean), sets the emotional tone: Barton’s voice, unaccompanied at first and then joined by piano, oscillates between rich, pure and raw. In The Work at Hand, to poignant texts by Laura Morefield, they’re joined by the cellist Matt Haimovitz.

Heggie’s style is melodic and immediate, now a touch of blues and scat, now exultant and climactic. He’s in the tradition of composer-pianists who know exactly how to play their own music (not automatically the case, but true here). Barton, versatile and big-hearted, catching any shred of wit or sorrow, responds to the music’s every need, each syllable crystal clear.

• Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Juan, Op 20 (1888), written for enormous forces, required large format paper to cope with the 23 staves and divided parts. Even the composer admitted it was a challenge for all, noting the “poor horns and trumpets puffed with such effort that they were completely blue in the face”. None of this strain is audible in Tod und Verklärung, Don Juan, Sechs Leider, Op 68 (Linn; released 11 September), in which the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin is conducted by Robin Ticciati, with the soprano Louise Alder.

Louise Alder.
Louise Alder. Photograph: Gerard Collett

The orchestra’s exuberant account of Don Juan flows and explodes like lava, horns soaring, woodwind solos alert and expressive, violin solo sweet and suggestive. In contrasting mood, Tod und Verklärung, Op 24 (1888-9) is mysterious, yearning, majestic, the players and Ticciati equally persuasive. Alder performs the Sechs Lieder, Op 68 (1918) with a mastery of dramatic range. We can only count the days until she is back on stage, taking on the Strauss operatic roles so suited to her voice in all its sumptuous variety and agility.

Louise Alder is among artists featured in archive concerts from the Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, broadcast on Radio 3 last week (now on BBC Sounds) in the absence of an Edinburgh festival. Others include the Chiaroscuro Quartet, Ronald Brautigam, Les Vents Français, Christian Tetzlaff and Leif Ove Andsnes.

Watch Jamie Barton, Jake Heggie and Matt Haimovitz perform The Work at Hand (The Slow Seconds)

Contributor

Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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