Wednesday, 13 January 2016

A little magic - Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware in Schubert

Benjamin Appl - photo: David Jerusalem
Benjamin Appl - photo: David Jerusalem
Schubert songs; Benjamin Appl, Jonathan Ware; the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Jan 11 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Benjamin Appl's enchants in a last-minute programme all-Schubert programme

Young German baritone Benjamin Appl and American pianist Jonathan Ware stepped in at very short notice for the indisposed Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger, to present an all-Schubert programme, including Erlkönig and Viola, at the Wigmore Hall on Monday 11 January 2016 in keeping with Schubert: The Complete Songs series.

As Appl walked on stage we could see he is no stranger to the Wigmore; in fact this was his third appearance here in a week. He has an easy, friendly manner and sings to all of us. He was Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s last private pupil and the mentoring really shows. He knows how to construct a programme that suits his voice and tells us a story; he knows how to exploit every word of the text, and he has a really lovely way with rubato and there were lots of those telepathic moments with Ware.

Jonathan Ware - photo Kaupo Kikkas
Jonathan Ware - photo Kaupo Kikkas
Appl clearly loves this repertoire and he knows it very well; the whole programme was sung from memory. He started with a breezy ‘Seligkeit’, followed by two more Hölty settings, ‘An die Afpelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte’ (To the apple trees where I spotted Julia) and An den Mond (To the moon), coincidentally performed a few days earlier by Christopher Maltman (see our review), and here totally in keeping with Appl’s youth and stage persona – very charming. He captured us straight away. The voice is dark but not prematurely ponderous, as we sometimes hear with younger baritones. It really is the kind of voice you can listen to all day.

The remainder of the first half was given to Goethe settings, including a wonderfully characterised, rollicking ‘Musensohn’, effortless ‘Ganymed’ and a muscular ‘Rastlose Liebe’. These are Schubert pops, but he made them all sound fresh. A couple of these songs in this set felt to me as though they should have been sung in a higher key: ‘Nähe des Geliebten’ and ‘Meeres stille’ sounded a bit too lugubrious. His ‘Erlkönig’ was the campest thing I have heard on the Wigmore platform for a long time: the pompous father patronising as he tells the frantic boy it’s just a … ‘Nebelstreif’ (mist), and the pervy Erlkönig clearly differentiated in the voice and the piano as they raced to the melodramatic end. Marvellous stuff. If that was anyone’s first ‘Erlkönig’ they’ll never forget it.

Appl started after the interval with ‘Viola’. The violet’s lost innocence is said to parallel that of Schubert after the tragic 1822 brothel visit arranged by the poet of this ballad, bad boy Franz von Schober. Appl’s depiction of the abandoned violet, sobbing as she fears nobody will come and find her, was simply heartbreaking. He and Ware created interminable spaces in the narrative for us to reflect on the desperate situation.

Comic relief next from Hölty’s sardonic (and sozzled) Gravedigger, then Craigher’s nostalgic counterpart, who runs out of energy as we realise he is digging his own grave. Longing for escape, then for home, and ultimately for death characterised the final group of songs that ended with the ecstatic ‘Nachtstück’ (Nocturne) as the old man fades away. A stunning end, and I doubt very much if there was a dry eye in the house after that.

We had two encores: ‘Nachtviolen’ and ‘An der Laute’. Appl thanked us for not returning our tickets, and Ware demonstrated a clever trick of concealing the copy for the encores as he came on for his bow, flicking it on to the piano desk and arriving empty-handed to acknowledge the applause. Yet another magical event to end the evening.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Seligkeit D433; An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte D197; An den Mond D193; Nähe des Geliebten D162; Rastlose Liebe D138; Wandrers Nachtlied D224; An den Mond D259; Der Musensohn D764; Ganymed D544; Meeres Stille D216; Erlkönig D328. Viola D786; Totengräberlied D44; Totengräbers Heimweh D842; Drang in die Ferne D770; Der Wanderer an den Mond D870; Abendstern D806; Der Wanderer D489; Nachtstück D672.

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