Wednesday 14 September 2016

Youth and experience: Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson in Schubert

Benjamin Appl, Graham Johnson - Schubert - Wigmore Hall Live
Schubert songs; Benjamin Appl, Graham Johnson; Wigmore Hall Live
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 28 2016
Star rating: 4.0

The young German baritone in a highly appealing of Schubert song

In January 2016 the young German baritone Benjamin Appl stood in at the last minute for a Wigmore Hall recital with an all Schubert programme, our reviewer Ruth was there and was impressed (see her review). This wasn't Appl's first Schubert recital at the Wigmore Hall, and this new disc from Wigmore Hall Live gives us a chance to eavesdrop on Appl's recital, with pianist Graham Johnson, from 27 March 2015. The programme consists of Am Bach im Frühling, Der Wanderer an den Mond, Im Freien, Geheimes, Das Lied im Grünen, Fischerweise, Verklärung, An den Tod, Der Zwerg, An die Leier, Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, Memnon, Alinde, Der Kampf, Die Gebüsche and Im Abendrot, with two encores.

The booklet includes admirable notes on the individual songs by Richard Stokes, but we are given little hint about how and why the selection of songs was made. Still, we can see at first glance that we start in the open air and continue there for some time, before death and things otherworldly take over.

Am Bach im Frühling gives us the first chance to hear Benjamin Appl's poised and beautiful sustained line, something he combines with a fabulous feel for the words. Yes, he is German but there is still something rather special about the way he combines the mellifluous vocal line with superb diction and a strong sense of the text. The song itself has an interesting, recitative-like middle section. Der Wanderer an den Mond sees Appl singing with a lovely swagger, and a fine freedom at the top of his voice, supported by a highly characterful piano from Graham Johnson. Im Freien sees line combined with expressive passion, with a highly appealing piano accompaniment.

Geheimes and Das Lied im Grünen are both given with a lively character, the first with quite serious intent whilst the latter has interesting rhythmic pointing, and Appl shows impressive control of the variety of inflections he gives to the verses in the strophic song. The perky Fischerweise sees Appl showing us his story telling skills, complemented by the character in Johnson's playing.

The early Verklärung is another interestingly structured song, with a sense of being almost a dramatic recitative leading into arioso, with some beautifully controlled hushed moments from Appl. This leads quite naturally into the aria-like An den Tod which Appl and Johnson make suitably bravura.

Der Zwerg is a showpiece of an entirely different cast, a longer dramatic narrative. We can appreciate Appl's sense of line and the lively character in the piano,  but combined with a vivid story-telling, creating a very complete performance of a complex piece. I still associate this song very much with Iain Burnside's play Why does the Queen die?

 An die Leier returns to the alternation of dramatic recitative with moments of lyrical flow, whilst Gruppe aus dem Tartarus combines virile vocal drama with vigour in the piano. Memnon is darkly thoughtful and rather sombre, even when drama develops. Alinde has a lighter feel in the style, but still a strongly sombre vein as befits the story (a young man looking for his lost love).

Der Kampf is a remarkable piece of writing, a large scale and sophisticated in its drama almost operatic in the scale, and given a full blooded performance by Appl and Johnson. Die Gebüsche shows off the sheer lyric beauty of Appl's voice, in a fluidly flowing account of the song. Finally Im Abendtrot which is rather interior and full of quiet beauty. There are two encores, both given with great charm, Wiedersehen and Die Taubenpost.

As this is a live recording, we get a real sense of the immediacy of the performance but the disc also captures the beauty, line and vibrancy in Appl's performance with Johnson's sophisticated accompaniments.

See also our review of Benjamin Appl's recital of Heinrich Heine settings with pianist James Baillieu on Champs Hill Records.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Am Bach im Frühling D361
Franz Schubert - Der Wanderer an den Mond D870
Franz Schubert - Im Freien, D880
Franz Schubert - Geheimes D719
Franz Schubert - Das Lied im Grünen D917
Franz Schubert - Fischerweise D881
Franz Schubert - Verklärung D59
Franz Schubert - An den Tod D518
Franz Schubert - Der Zwerg D771
Franz Schubert - An die Leier D737
Franz Schubert - Gruppe aus dem Tartarus D583
Franz Schubert - Memnon D541
Franz Schubert - Alinde D904
Franz Schubert - Der Kampf D594
Franz Schubert - Die Gebüsche D646
Franz Schubert - Im Abendrot D799
Franz Schubert - Wiedersehn D855
Franz Schubert - Die Taubenpost D965a
Benjamin Appl (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)
Recorded live at the Wigmore Hall, London on 27 March 2015

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