Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Benjamin Appl Schubert Wigmore Hall

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger were due to give the latest installment in the Wigmore Hall's complete Schubert songs  series, but both had to cancel at short notice. Fortunately, the Wigmore Hall rises to such contingencies, and gave us Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware.   Since there's a huge buzz about Appl, this was an opportunity to hear more of what he can do.

Being a BBC New Generation Artist guarantees high level coverage.  Careers are launched, though in some cases one wonders if marketability isn't part of success. Benjamin  Appl, though, is probably the real thing. Several of my friends, some of whom go to dozens of Lieder recitals each year, certainly think he has the potential.  He has a very good "instrument", to use a rather unpleasant term, as if voice exists disembodied.  Many successful careers have been based on sounding good, but in Lieder, the paramount virtue is Innigkeit, the expression of "inward" nuance, often subtle and complex. The Romantic revolution - upper case "R" not lower case - transformed European culture, and Lieder was part of the vanguard.  If Appl takes more risks and captures its spirit, he has the potential to be not just good, but great.

But what pressures that creates!  Appearing for the first time in a high-profile evening recital at the Wigmore Hall, with its formidable reputation, especially in place of Pisaroni, must be quite overwhelming. Sensitivity is essential in a good artist, but it has its downsides, too. Once Appl settled in, he seemed much more at home.  The gentle An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte  D 197 (1815), allowed Appl's singing to gently unfold, like the "heilig Säuseln" in Holty's poem, where the poet uses outward images to allude to feelings he can't articulate. It's possible that the lovers have been separated by death: these perfumed memories are spookier than they seem. The mood continued with  An den mond D193 (1815), a far more sophisticated setting of Holty. Nice pairing, which indicates that Appl knows what he's doing when he compiles a programme.

Appl was accompanied by Jonathan Ware, who has worked with Appl (and Pisaroni) before. He's very assertive, even forceful, which can be a good thing. He challenged Appl, pushing him to give his best.  The pace was, at times, quite frantic, but well judged. In Der Musensohn D764 (1822), the son of the muses flies along swiftly, like the turbulent winds of early Spring, awakening the world. Yet the Musensohn is driven by forces greater than himself.  "Wann ruh' ich am Busen, auch endlich weider aus? ". Last week, in his recital of Eichendorff settings at the Wigmore Hall,  (Read my review here) Appl was accompanied by Graham Johnson, the doyen of Schubert accompanists, but the partnership between Ware and Appl might be more stimulating in the long term.

Viola D 786 (1823) made a good contrast to Erlkönig D328 (1815). Goethe and Mayrhofer were very different poets. Viola, a long strophic ballad, can be rather twee, with its images of flowers talking to one another. But consider its deeper meaning. Those that come out before their time deserve respect. The song works best when performed with equal daring.  Appl and Ware followed this with another good pairing, Totengräberlied D 44 (1813) and Totengräbers Heimweh D842 (1825), the latter a masterpiece. Read more here.  It's a song so strong that it can support a far more powerful interpretation than it received here.  That's a direction in which Appl should be heading.
Appl and Ware then performed a selection of classics: Der Wanderer an den Mond D870 (1826, Seidl), Abendstern D806 (Mayrhofer), Der Wanderer D489 (1816 Schmidt von Lübeck) and Nachstück D672 (1819 Mayrhofer) . Schubert's finest songs worked their magic.

A version of this review appears in Opera Today.

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