Sunday 16 July 2023

There are things to discover still: Benjamin Appl on exploring themes of temptation and seduction in his latest album, Forbidden Fruit

Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu at Ingolstadt in 2020 (Photo: Foto Schaffer)
James Baillieu and Benjamin Appl at Ingolstadt Festsaal in 2020 (Photo: Foto Schaffer)

Benjamin Appl's latest recital disc on Alpha Classics is a bit of a change. Benjamin and pianist James Bailieu previous disc with Alpha was Schubert's Winterreise, but the new disc is an eclectic mix of styles, composers and languages under the title Forbidden Fruit. Linked by Benjamin reading fragments of the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, the metaphor of forbidden fruit gives Benjamin and James a wide range of possible interpretations.

When I comment to Benjamin about the variety of song on the disc, he points out that there is still a lot of German song in the recital - Hugo Wolf, Kurt Weill, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Robert Schumann, Fanny Mendelssohn, Lothar Brühne, Franz Schubert, Hanns Eisler, Gustav Mahler alongside songs by Gabriel Faure, Ivor Gurney, Francis Poulenc, Reynaldo Hahn, Roger Quilter, Leonello Casucci, Edvard Grieg, and Jake Heggie. As regards the story of the Temptation, Benjamin grew up in Catholic Bavaria so he is very familiar with the Biblical tale. Yet though it sits deeply in the psyche, there are a lot of contradictions in it. He loves the metaphor that the story of Adam and Eve contains, yet some elements do not make sense. Why was God dealing with conditional love; if Adam and Eve did not know about evil why should they mistrust the serpent?  

Benjamin Appl  (Photo: Manuel Outumuro)
Benjamin Appl  (Photo: Manuel Outumuro)
Thinking about the story, he started getting ideas for songs, and it was an interesting concept, the themes of temptation and seduction, yet bringing the ideas into our own times, looking at what was inside us. He looked at songs which examined themes of stepping over boundaries, for instance, Eisler's Die Ballade vom Paragraphen 218 is about abortion, Schumann's Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß is ultimately about incest (the text is spoken by the Harper in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister). But to create a coherent programme, Benjamin needed to put the songs in order and this is brought him back to the original story. This is why they included the spoken quotations from the Bible, the songs are an interpretation of the text, like a sermon on the gospel.

Programmes such as Forbidden Fruit provide a different way of looking at the song recital, giving an element of freedom. Composers such as Schubert and Schumann are geniuses and we are never able to reproduce the emotional trajectories of their great song recitals, but Benjamin feels that modern artists can find themselves in danger of being in a loop - what are the reasons for another recording of a classic song cycle. After the war, artists like Dietrich Fischer Dieskau purified the song recital, out went the mixed programmes with chamber music and arias, and Fischer Dieskau would concentrate on a single composer or small group of composers. This is still very much the standard, though the pianist Graham Johnson introduced a different, thematic approach with his Songmakers Almanac recitals. But now Benjamin thinks that this is where the industry is going, moving away from a focused recording just Winterreise and the great classics. Benjamin finds it refreshing to find links in the songs to contemporary society, to bring another dimension to our time.

Benjamin Appl (Photo © DR)
Benjamin Appl (Photo © DR)

For instance, he mentions Schubert's song Gretchen am Spinnrade which can have a different effect depending on what you sing before or after the song (on the disc, Benjamin and James precede it with Schubert's Heidenröslein and follow it with Eisler's Ballade, the one about abortion). Benjamin likes the idea that by doing such things, you can bring people to a different place, and make them listen differently. The results are rewarding yet dangerous, the artist can be vulnerable. Exploring different approaches and perspectives, so for instance, Debussy's La Chevelure is normally sung by a woman. There are things to discover still, and it is rewarding to discover more.

Another issue is that 70 years ago in Germany everyone knew the stories, and the poetry that related to the songs whereas today it is different. Artists need to find a way to connect the audience with the stories, and here concept albums and telling stories are helpful.

But programming a song recital is different from programming an album. Benjamin felt that Forbidden Fruit worked well as an album, but he was less certain about performing the programme in recital and only did his first recital based on the album earlier this year at St Martin in the Fields (as part of his residency there). he was nervous about whether it would work. It did, and there are further Forbidden Fruit recitals to come.

Alongside longer classic songs, the album features several shorter, quirky ones which can be difficult to programme. But Benjamin points out that such songs can also be helpful as breakers in a recital, deliberately interrupting the situation and the atmosphere. But creating the right sequence is challenging, you need to also use songs as bridges so the programme doesn't just resemble a carpet with lots of small sections. A programme like Forbidden Fruit features different emotions, periods and languages and you need to find a continuation, and sometimes a short, quirky song helps.

The album features an article by Benjamin introducing the disc and considering the ideas behind the programme in quite a philosophical way. He finds that writing a personal few lines is important for an album, as is nice artwork so that listeners react to the album as an object rather than just clicking on a playlist. The photographs for the disc were taken by the Spanish photographer Manuel Outumuro Benjamin gave him the recording but gave him complete freedom as to what to create.

Benjamin sees the themes explored in the album as being universal, the ideas of limitations and freedoms, and diversity. There are always boundaries, different people will very them differently but overall the theme is important.

And of course, the apple gives a nice pun on his name!

Looking ahead, his next few albums are planned, but he enjoys taking his beloved German songs and putting them, with care and love, into different contexts. He has a programme, The Songwriter, with lutenist Thomas Dunford performing songs by Dowland, Schubert, French song and popular songs, and Melting Pots with accordionist Martynas Levickis which looks at four different times and places, the Vienna of Mahler, New York in the Broadway era, Berlin in the 1930s and Paris, and a collaboration with a Mexican pianist. The idea is to look for similarities and differences between German song and other repertoire, Benjamin sees such links as being important to both.

Also, Benjamin enjoys working with different accompanists and different accompaniments, each provides a different way of supporting the singer and creates a way of singing differently; the way you react, and the sound aesthetics are different. With an accordion, the way of playing legato is different, the changing of buttons and keys, means that Benjamin performs differently too. He learns from other instruments, other aesthetics and sound worlds, he finds this refreshing and he can bring something of this back to his performances with piano.

So, when he is performing Winterreise (which he has done some 90 times) it is important to get inspiration from these differences, to extend his palate with new colours, shading and such. One approach has been to extend the accompaniment (such as Hans Zender's Schubert's Winterreise), and Schubert's brother arranged the composer's songs for orchestra. Benjamin's next album will be a disc of orchestrations of Schubert by composers such as Reger, Berlioz and Brahms, an idea that Benjamin finds interesting indeed. He also has a project with a string quartet and at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg he is performing a programme with five percussionists. 

He emphasises that the original songs are important too, and he is very happy performing them. But the way he sees it, we can bring the poetry seen through the composer's eyes but put it on a different screen, like watching a film in the cinema or on iPad, what varies is how you present it to people. He takes inspiration from other areas so that when he performs 'Der Leierman' (from Winterreise) with lute the results are creepy. He sees performances as being an expansion of his experiences in life.

Benjamin will be performing Forbidden Fruit with pianist Sholto Kynoch in Oxford on 14 October 2023 as part of the Oxford International Song Festival (formerly the Oxford Lieder Festival) and a few further dates. The programme is a problem for some promoters, they cannot imagine what it will be like until they can hear the record. There was a similar problem with his 2017 disc Heimatwhich mixed songs from different countries all exploring the idea of homeland, and most concerts came after the disc was released.

Full details of all Benjamin Appl's performances from his website, where you can also explore all his recordings.

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