Tuesday 5 January 2016

Benjamin Appl Eichendorff Lieder Wigmore Hall

Eager anticipation for Benjamin Appl's recital with Graham Johnson at the Wigmore Hall , since Appl is one of the most promising young singers around. Being a BBC New Generation Artist automatically rockets any performer to star status, though some have appealed more for their looks, youth and marketability than for their talent. Appl, though, is one of the genuine discoveries. He has real potetial.

For his Wigmore Hall recital, Appl sang an interesting programme of settings of poems by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788-1853). Taken out of context, some of Eichendorff's poetry might seem simplistic, as the BBC continuity suggests, but Eichendorff was a highly influential thinker whose ideas shaped the spirit of the Romantic era. Nature, for the Romantics, wasn't an escape into Disneyesque fantasy. but an affirmation of elemental forces beyond the control of conventional ordered civilization.  Eichendorff's respect for pure, unspoiled Nature also reflected his spiritual beliefs.  Eichendorff was a devout Catholic, a member of a minority in the Prussian state.  As a social reformer,  Eichendorff was a progressive who revamped the Prussian education system, making it more open to all. Most definitely not a small "r" romantic daydreamer ! Throughout his writings run  deep themes like spirituality, tolerance and respect for humble yet genuinely noble values. How I wish this programme had included Verschweigene Liebe, one of Eichendorff's most magical poems, with its refrain that clarion call of the Romantic age, "Gedanken sind Frei!"

Much better, I think, a recital that deals with a single poet in relative depth than the usual sampler programmes that demonstrate a young singer's vocal range rather than his or her understanding of the underlying principles of the repertoire. Appl began with three Schumann Eichendorff settings Frühlingsfahrt (Op 45/2)  Der Einsiedler (Op 77/1) and  Der frohe Wandersmann Op 83/3).  
In  Eichendorff's Fruhlingsfahrt, two sturdy youths set forth, both striving for lofty things. One finds happiness in simple things. The other is seduced by the sirens of the deep and ends up a shattered wreck. Both Fruhlingsfahrt and Der frohe Wandersman show that  Eichendorff was fascinated by wilder shores even while he praises domesticity. His homilies to God are talismanic, for he intuits that creativity can be dangerous. An artist is driven by something greater than his own free will.  Happy Wanderer? No way.

Graham Johnson's accompaniment was steady rather than spectacular, giving Appl decent support.  Appl's voice is naturally interesting. . I've heard very vivid singing from him before, full of character and intelligence, so I hoped he'd take more risks with less-familiar repertoire.  The Mendelssohn Eichendorff settings are delicately refined and need expressiveness to bring out the innate strength beneath the surface elegance. Appl's Pagenlied moved thoughfully from noon-day meadow to evening serenade, and his Nachtlied responded to the liveliness in the paino part, and the text. Truly  "Will keiner mit mir munter sein?".  Wanderlied  burst with vigorous spirit.
It was good, too, to hear Brahms's settings of In der Fremde and Mondnacht for a change isntead of Schumann, for they illustrate the differences between the two composers. Schumann's settings are effervescent,but Appla and Graham Johnson showed how Brahms's more down to earth approach gives them solidity.  More characteristically "Brahmsian" were Parole and Anklänge, which reminded me of Brahms's Liebeslieder Walzer. Perhaps the more "folksy" element in the poems appealed to the composer, who wasn't as acutely attuned to literature as Schumann was.
Similarly, I suspect that Hans Pfitzner's appreciation of Eichendorff shaped his settings of the poems.  Fortunately, Appl and Johnson did not start their Pfitzner set with Der Gartner, written before 1896, and published in 1899.  Alas, it's leaden,  its heaviness bearing little relation to the subtle ideas in the poem. Pfitzner is far better suited to poems like In Danzig (from1907)  in which Eichendorff describes the city under moonlight.

"Dunkel Giebel, hohe Fenster,
Türme wie aus Nebel sehn.
Bleiche Statuen wie Gespenster
Lautlos an den Türen stehn."
Pfitzner's murky tone-painting colours the scene as if it were a painting from Caspar David Friedrich so effectively that it captures the discreetly hidden punchline embedded within the text :"Nur des Meeres fernes Rauschen.Wunderbare Einsamkeit!"  Typically of Eichendorff this portrait of the city is psychological rather than purely physical.  The poem dates from 1842.  Eichendorff almost certainly knew Heinrich Heine's mysterious Die Stadt, and Pfitzner must have known the masterpiece setting thereof.  Similazrly, Pfitzner's setting of Zum Abschied meiner Tochter describes a physical situation, the autumnal images in the poem nicely translated into sound, Yet again, though, Pfitzner underestimates the horror in the final strophe, disguised by mechanical images: 
"Die Gassen schauen nochnächtlich,
Es rasselt der Wagen bedächtig –
Nun plötzlich rascher der Trott
Durchs Tor in die Stille der Felder,
Da grüßen so mutig die Wälder,
Lieb Töchterlein, fahre mit Gott!

Probably no other composer set Eichendorff as brilliantly as Hugo Wolf (though I wouldn't, couldn't be without Schumann).  Wolf was so intent on expressing poems through music that he called his songs "poems", and wrote in bursts of frenzied inspiration.  Appl and Johnson could have devoted a whole recital to Wolf's Eichendorff songs, but they chose just five - Nachruf; Das Ständchen; Der Musikant; Der Scholar; and Der Freund. Perhaps they knew we'd heard these so many times that we'd be more interested in Mendelssohn, Brahms and Pfitzner for a change, and put their best efforts into creating their best performances there.  Appl does have the voice, and the intelligence, to do great things. I'd like to hear him be more daring, connecting to the intensity inherent in this poetry. I think he's got what it takes, but he needs to take risks.  The Romantic Revolution broke boundaries: we should heed its audacity.


Mark Berry said...

Verschwiegene Liebe was the encore. Maybe the broadcast didn't have time for it.

Vecchio John said...

Of course Verschweigene Liebe was sung as an encore.