Jamie Barton/Jake Heggie review – a straightforward delight in performing

There’s standard-issue onstage chemistry – and then there’s the extravaganza of hip shimmies and floor kissing that erupts periodically between mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton and composer-pianist Jake Heggie. No need to check the programme to discover that these two are friends as well as collaborators: the easy banter and goofingspoke loud and clear. “We don’t have any fun,” Heggie deadpanned, somewhere between jokes about their recent Grammy nomination and a fleeting imitation of a cat. But it was Barton’s straightforward delight in performing that set the tone.

And it was much more than delight: Barton’s extraordinary talent as a musical communicator was clear from the deeply soulful unaccompanied opening of the first item (a song from Heggie’s cycle The Breaking Waves), her low notes thrillingly rich, her delivery so compelling as to instantly create the kind of silence in which no one dares to breathe. Britten’s arrangement of Purcell’s Music for a While abounded with colour, fearlessly embracing rather than smoothing over the differences between registers. Schubert’s An die Musik became almost seductive and Brahms’s Unbewegte Laue Luft was unequivocally so. In four beautiful songs by the African American composer Florence Price she trod a fine line between brash Broadway lyricism and ultra-intimate lieder singing.

Easy banter and goofing... Jamie Barton & Jake Heggie perform in the Barbican Hall on 5 December 2021.
Easy banter and goofing… Jamie Barton & Jake Heggie perform in the Barbican Hall on 5 December 2021. Photograph: Mark Allan

Sadly – and despite their complementary qualities – Heggie couldn’t match Barton’s musical subtlety. The finger-twister in Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade was muddy, his touch elsewhere heavy. Predictably, he did better in the all-Heggie second half, where hypnotically circling accompaniments fell neatly under his fingers. In its UK premiere, his lockdown song cycle What I Miss the Most had occasional moments of poise and beauty amid increasingly bland bitonality. Barton could make bewitching musical sense of more or less any score, I’d hazard – but she needs an accompanist who can do the same.

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