Thursday, 19 October 2017

Lieder von Orient - Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Graham Johnson and Benjamin Appl at BBC Radio 3 lunchtime concert at Wigmore Hall (photo BBC Radio 3)
Graham Johnson & Benjamin Appl at BBC Radio 3
lunchtime concert at Wigmore Hall (photo BBC Radio 3)
Lieder vom Orient, Schubert, Brahms, Schumann, Loewe, Wolf, Strauss; Benjamin Appl, Graham Johnson; Oxford Lieder Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 17 2017 Star rating: 4.5
A wonderful exploration; inspired by Middle-Eastern poetry, German poets provided 19th century composers with striking material

Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson's recital devoted to Lieder vom Orient in the Holywell Music Room at the Oxford Lieder Festival on 17 October 2017 came at the end of a day of concerts & lectures devoted to late Brahms (see my review). So Appl and Johnson gave us the chance to appreciate a younger Brahms with the 9 Lieder under Gesänge, Op.32 from 1864. These were heard in the context a programme of settings of poems by German poets inspired by Oriental literature, including songs by Schubert, Schumann, Carl Loewe, Wolf, Peter Cornelius and Richard Strauss.

German poets discovered the Oriental (in fact more Middle-Eastern in modern parlance) in the early 19th century, the poetry of Persians such as Hafiz offered the German poets a route to a lightness and formal elegance which did not always come easily in the German language. But if the idea of the 'Orient' suggests a parallel lightness in the music, then nothing could be further from the truth. In the songs particularly from Schubert and Brahms, the poetry was allied to music of remarkable intensity and angst.

Brahms' 9 Lieder under Gesänge, Op.32, setting poetry by August von Platen and Georg Friedrich Daumer, came after the turbulent end to Brahms' relationship with Agathe von Siebold, so the cycle of poems by a rejected lover seem to have been particularly personal, and the first six in particular are very intense. Benjamin Appl's performance was almost disturbing in its intensity, and frequently he really fixed the audience with his eyes. The first song 'Wie rafft'ich mich auf in der Nacht' was stark and full of foreboding and the cycle continued dark and unsettled. Both Appl and Johnson brought a sense of dramatic continuity to the cycle, an emotional journey for the restless protagonist. In 'Der Strom, der neben mir verrauschte' we are apparently quiet, yet in the final lines the explosion comes.

By 'Du sprichst, dass ich mich täuschte' we were getting hints of consolation in the piano, and with 'Bitteres zu sagen denkst du' the music became more lyrical too. In 'So stehen wir, ich und meine Weide' the mood was more resignation than consolation, and finally the magical 'Wie bist du, meine Königin' with its mood of blissful consolation.

The cycle was made more intense by prefixing it with Schubert's two settings of von Platen, Der Liebe hat gelogen, D751 and Du liebst mich nicht. The first strong and rendered intensely personal by Appl, whilst in the second song, 'Du liebst mich nicht' the title becomes a refrain which verges on the obsessive. After the Brahms we returned to Schubert (this time three Rückert settings), in less intense mode. Lachen und Weinen started light, but became complex and questioning, whilst Dass sie hier gewesen was rather wistful, but slightly disturbing in its intensity. It was left to a mesmerising performance of Du bist die Ruh to provide real consolation.

After the interval we moved to Schumann, setting Rückert, Goethe, Heine and Körner. Aus dem 'Ostlichen Rosen' had disarming charm. The way Appl shaped the phrases really made you pay attention. Freisinn was vigorous with a lovely sense of freedom in piano and in voice, whilst Die Lotusblume was highly concentrated, yet beautifully phrased. The Heine ballad Belsatzar started darkly atmospheric and was full of character and colour, as Appl and Johnson gave vivid account of the drama including the superbly downbeat ending. Finally in this group the sinuous beauty of the Byron setting Aus der 'Hebraischen Gesängen' as the piano part wound its evocative way round the voice.

Carl Loewe's Byron setting, Alles ist Eitel, spricht der Prediger started more robust and direct, though drama developed through the verses. It was left to Wolf's remarkable Byron setting Sonne der Schlummerosen to really capture to striking atmosphere of the Orientalist poem. Bleak yes, but strange and evocative too.

The songs so far had all been rather intense, and Appl's striking manner of delivery really brought out the power of the songs but was in danger of veering towards the mannered, though perhaps it was geared to a rather larger, less intimate hall than Holywell Music Room.

For the final grouping we changed gear, but not location and had a group of songs about the Nativity. Wolf's Nun wandre Maria was straightforwardly haunting at first, but became more complex as Wolf wove melodies around the underlying song ending in rather unearthly manner. Peter Cornelius' Die Könige is better known in the UK in the choral arrangement, in Cornelius' original the chorale is played on the piano. Beautifully done, but I missed the chorus contribution!

Richard Strauss's Die heiligen drei Könige started with dark and sombre piano, and though the vocal line was relatively straightforward there was a sense of colour in the piano which climaxed with the richly textured and long postlude which included the  page turner joining in on a second piano!

Finally, Wolf's Epiphanias, though setting Goethe it was written for children's performance and Appl gave it a wonderful sense of vivid characterisation . There was a delightful piano postlude,  during which Appl placed paper crowns and all three heads (singer, pianist, accompanist).

The capacity house was rightly enthusiastic, and we were treated to a pair of encores, Schubert's Geheimnis, and Schumann's Sitz ich allein. Graham Johnson and Benjamin Appl are repeating the concert at the Wigmore Hall on 26 October.

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