Wednesday 26 April 2017

Capturing the Zeitgeist: Benjamin Appl & James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall

Benjamin Appl (Photo Sony / Lars Borges)
Benjamin Appl (Photo Sony / Lars Borges)
Heimat;Benajmin Appl, James Baillieu; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Apr 21 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Telling his own story, the young German baritone in recital

This recital on 21 April 2017 was part of the Wigmore Hall’s expanded vocal series and the programme was a slightly reduced version of baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist James Baillieu’s first CD recital for Sony Classical, with songs by Schubert, Reger, Schreker, Brahms, Grieg, Richard Strauss, Adolf Strauss, Poulenc, RVW, Bishop, Warlock and Ireland.

Both musicians have an impeccable pedigree, Appl being one of Fischer-Dieskau’s last pupils and Baillieu a student of Graham Johnson. No wonder the Wigmore was packed. Appl’s Sony signing and accompanying make-over to make him look ‘street’ (as they used to say in South London) means he is aiming for a wider audience than the Wigmore lunchtime crowd.

Appl’s programme is bang on the Zeitgeist. He started with ‘Seligkeit’ – which I can’t imagine anyone in the audience had never heard before – both to establish his heritage and to show us it is possible to hear a familiar song as though for the first time. Schubert / Hölty tell of the bliss of staying put with the beloved; Appl and Bailieu had fun with rubato to make each tiny verse switch from urgent to pensive and back.

Last time I heard Benjamin Appl he stepped in at short notice with an all-Schubert programme and delighted us with long ballads and melodramas including a rollercoaster of ‘Der Erlkönig’ [review here]. This time the story he was telling was his own, which requires a lot more bravery. He introduced the programme saying ‘Heimat’ is a particularly German word that has resonances around identity and belonging as well as ‘home’ and this recital was his leaving one home and making another in London (and feeling very welcome here). Of course he follows the footsteps of so many others who left Central Europe (albeit in more awful circumstances) and made London their home, enriching our musical life.

Each group of songs had a theme: “Locations” included a quiet ‘Des Kindes Gebet’ by Reger and Schuberts ‘Der Einsame’ that captured the countryside perfectly (not least due to Baillieu’s lopsided accompaniment reminding us that this was the tubby Schubert alone in this rustic heaven). Schreker’s ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ found us alone in the woods – all perfect – for now.

“People” was three songs telling of innocent but intense and probably short-lived loves; folksy late Brahms followed by Grieg’s ‘Zur Rosenzeit’ and Strauss’ Allerseelen were heartbreaking, especially the playout.

“On the road” ended with Adolf Strauß’ ‘Ich weiß bestimmt, ich werd’ dich wiedersehen’ (I know for sure I will see you again), written shortly before he was sent to his death in Auschwitz and sung here with schmalziness that nobody would have objected to under any circumstances.

“Yearning” featured two Schubert songs, with gorgeous word-painting as the new home doesn’t measure up to the one he left behind: ‘Wo bist do, mein geliebetes Land! Gesucht, geahnt, und nie gekannt…’ (Where are you, my beloved land? Sought for, sensed and never known) and the interminable pause as he keeps asking and before the ghostly whisper answers: ‘Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort is das Glück’ (where you are not, there is where fortune lies).

And then we move to singing in a foreign language. Crazy Poulenc / Apollinaire in Hyde Park and then the properly English and beautifully poised Silent Noon. I enjoyed Appl’s slightly unidiomatic way with some English words – cow parsley and hawthorn – making them sound exotic.

And actually, that is why we all benefit from having foreigners make this country their second ‘Heimat’ – they make us see our own boring cow parsley through other eyes. I am sure I wasn't the only one in the audience mulling over how the prevailing winds are about to change it all again.


Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Seligkeit D433

Max Reger (1873-1916): Des Kindes Gebet (Rafael) Op. 76 No. 22
Franz Schubert: Der Einsame D800
Franz Schreker (1878-1934): Waldeinsamkeit (Arnold)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund WoO. 33 No. 25
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907): Zur Rosenzeit Op. 48 No. 5
Richard Strauss (1864-1949): Allerseelen Op. 10 No. 8

Franz Schubert: Drang in die Ferne D770; Der Wanderer an den Mond D870
Adolf Strauss (1902-1944): Ich weiss bestimmt, ich werd dich wiedersehn!

Franz Schubert: Das Heimweh D456; Der Wanderer D489

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963): Hyde Park
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Silent Noon
Sir Henry R Bishop (1786-1855): Home! Sweet Home!
Peter Warlock (1894-1930): My Own Country; The Bachelor
John Ireland (1879-1962): If there were dreams to sell
Edvard Grieg: Ein Traum Op. 48 No. 6

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