Thursday 18 May 2017

Heimat: Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu

Benjamin Appl - Heimat - Sony Classical
Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Reger, Schreker and Strauss (Adolf and Richard), Poulenc, Britten, RVW, Sir Henry Bishop, Warlock, Ireland; Benjamin Appl, James Baillieu; Sony Classical
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 14 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Attractively satisfying and thought provoking, the young German baritone's very personal take on 'Heimat'

The young baritone Benjamin Appl has already made a name for himself with interesting recitals on disc and in the concert hall. For his latest disc, his first for Sony Classical, he is accompanied by James Baillieu in Heimat. At first sight an intelligent and interestingly structured programme which moves from Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Reger, Schreker and Strauss (Adolf and Richard) through Poulenc, Britten, RVW, Sir Henry Bishop, Warlock and Ireland.

In German 'Heimat' means more than just homeland, it includes an element of the mental furniture of your home landscape. So here Appl takes us on his own journey from a village near Regensburg through studying in London.

We start with a prologue, Schubert's Seligkeit (Bliss) about the joys of place being with the beloved. From the outset we can enjoy Appl's way with words, and his firm tone with a slightly grainy quality, he really draws you in.

'Roots' has Max Reger's Des Kindes Gebet (The child's prayer) and Johannes Brahms' Wiegenlied (Lullaby), and between the two Hugo Wolf's Er ist's (Spring is here) which Appl's booklet note explains relates to the village where he grew up. The Reger has a magical piano part, with a beautifully thoughtful performance from Appl. Wolf's song is engaging with a sense of detail in both voice and piano, it is the phrasing we again notice in the Brahms.

'Locations' sees Schubert's Der Einsame (The Recluse), Brahms' Mondnacht (Moonlit night), and Franz Schreker's Waldeinsamkeit (Woodland Solitude), all exploring the beauty of being alone. Schubert's recluse is surprisingly perky with a pawky piano and characterful voice, and a sense of narrative. Brahms' moonlight has beautifully sustained phrasing and a sense of suspended time, and the Schreker is quite big boned and romantic.

'People' brings a more romantic element with Brahms' Mein Madel hat einem Rosenmund (My girl has a rosy mouth), Wolf's Vershwiegene Liebe (Silent Love) and Richard Strauss' Allerseelen (All Souls), then Schubert's Nocturne. The Brahms is full of swagger whilst the Wolf has a superb sense of sung poetry. In Strauss's song you sense his linkage to the songs of the past, and the performers rise to a superb climax. The nocturne start with a beautifully introspective piano, and Appl continues the mood with a lovely expansiveness of phrasing at 'heilige Nacht'.

'On the Road' has  a pair of Schubert songs, Drang in die Ferne (Longing to roam) and Der Wanderer an den Mond (The wanderer addresses the moon), and then Adolf Strauss' Ich weiss bestimmt, ich werd dich wiedersehen (I am certain I shall see you again). Schubert's first wanderer is carefree and a bit unbuttoned, the second starts with a marching swagger but poetry gradually creeps in. Adolf Strauss' song on the surface seems a delightful, if melancholy cabaret number. yet the composer died in Auschwitz and wrote the song while interned in Terezin.

'Yearning' pairs Schubert's tiny yet thoughtful Das Heimweh (Longing for home) with another of his wanderers, this one combining beauty of phrasing with an element of drama and sense of questioning.

'Without Frontiers' starts with a disorientating sense of culture shock, Francis Poulenc's Hyde Park, perhaps reflecting the culture shock which the 28-year-old Appl felt on coming to study in England for the first time. Poulenc's song is strongly characterised, perhaps too much so, and you sense that French song is not quite Appl's forte. When he moves to English song, the effect is remarkable.

Greensleeves is sung with exemplary diction, though Britten's arrangement is not his most interesting. RVW's Silent Noon is finely sung indeed, and despite the beauty of the phrasing Appl manages to make the song far fuller of incident than some performances. His English is not quite perfect, though perfectly expressive and this only serves to add to the charm. Bishop's Home Sweet Home is done perfectly straight, and lovely it is too. In Warlock's My Own Country Appl really brings out the importance of the words (something foreign singers performing in English do not always manage). Warlock's The Bachelor has a lovely bold swagger, and the final English song, Ireland's If there were dreams to sell, has a lovely poetic feel.

The Epilogue has a pair of songs in German, yet they are not German lied but songs by Edwvard Grieg (another musician whose training involved leaving his homeland for a foreign land). An das Vaterland (To the fatherland) is pregnant with meaning and fabulously sung. And we finish with the passionate Ein Traum (A dream).

Ruth heard Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu performing part of this programme at the launch of the album at the Wigmore Hall, and you can read her views of hearing the programme live in her review.

Not everything on the album is perfect, but Appl displays a remarkable grasp of music and poetry in many of these songs. Yet it is the overall concept and programme which really resonates; Appl's booklet not makes it clear that it is a very personal choice of songs. The result poignantly examines the complexities of what 'Heimat' means, and creates a programme which manages to be attractively satisfying and not a little thought provoking.

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Seligkeit, D. 433
Max Reger (1873-1916) - Des Kindes Gebet, Op. 76, No. 22
Hugo Wolf (1860-1903) - Er ist's
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4
Franz Schubert (1797-1828) - Der Einsame, D. 800
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) - Mondnacht, WoO 21
Franz Schreker (1878-1934) - Waldeinsamkeit
Johannes Brahms - Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund, WoO 33, No. 25
Hugo Wolf - Verschwiegene Liebe
Richard Strauss (1864-1949) - Allerseelen, Op. 10, No. 8
Franz Schubert - Nachtstück, D. 672
Franz Schubert - Drang in die Ferne, D. 770
Franz Schubert - Der Wanderer an den Mond, D. 870
Adolf Strauss (1902-1944) - Ich weiß bestimmt, ich werd' dich wiedersehen
Franz Schubert - Das Heimweh, D. 456
Franz Schubert - Der Wanderer, D. 489
Francis Poulenc (1866-1963) - Hyde Park, FP 127, No. 2
arr.Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Greensleeves
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - The House of Life: II. Silent Noon
Henry Rowley Bishop (1786-1865) - Home, Sweet Home
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) - My Own Country
Peter Warlock - The Bachelor
John Ireland (1879-1962) - If There were Dreams to Sell
Edvard Grieg(1843-1907) - An das Vaterland, Op. 58, No. 2
Edvard Grieg - Ein Traum, Op. 48, No. 6
Benjamin Appl (baritone)
James Baillieu (piano)
Recorded Studio 1, Bayerischer Rundfunk, German, October 28-31 2016, 20 January 2017.
SONY CLASSICAL 88985393032 1CD [66.54]
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