A Splendid Schubert Recital from Benjamin Appl and Jonathan Ware

15/01/2016

Schubert: Benjamin Appl (bass-baritone), Jonathan Ware (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 11.1.2016. (MB)

Schubert, Seligkeit, D 433; An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte, D 197; An den Mond, D 193; Nähe des Geliebten, D 162; Rastlose Liebe, D 138; Wandrers Nachtlied I, D 224; An den Mond, D 259; Der Musensohn, D 764; Ganymed, D 544; Meeres Stille, D 216; Erlkönig, D 328; Viola, D 786; Totengräberlied, D 44; Totengräbers Heimweh, D 842; Drang in die Ferne, D 770; Der Wanderer an den Mond, D 870; Abdenstern, D 806; Der Wanderer, D 489; Nachtstück, D 672

Luca Pisaroni and Wolfram Rieger had been due to give a recital of Schubert Lieder this evening; both, alas, fell ill. No one, however, could have been disappointed by their replacements. I had heard Benjamin Appl just one week earlier in an excellent recital at this very venue; he and Jonathan Ware now stepped in to give us an all-Schubert programme at least as fine.

Seligkeit (in one translation, ‘bliss’) opened the proceedings – and so it sounded. Both Appl and Ware were on excellent form from the outset, both of their parts sounding good-natured, carefree (insofar as Schubert can be). The voice sounded beautiful of tone with that great degree of variegation I had noted in the previous recital; the piano part was lucidly, nimbly traced. There was dramatic variety – and unity – to be heard in An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte. The transformation of the third stanza – ‘Nach langer Trennung Küsse mit Engelkuss…’ – quite properly took one’s breath away, as did the transmuting of ardour into nostalgia in the fourth. Nocturnal mystery and, above all, musical and verbal sincerity marked out An den Mond.

There then followed a sequence of Goethe settings. Rastlose Liebe made a wonderfully honest impression: a review of it as performance might simply quote its text. Wandrers Nachtlied I benefited from a performance capturing perfectly its mixture of restlessness and the restful: like the Wanderer himself, one might say. Musical structure came to the fore in a delightful performance of another An den Mond, followed by a foot-tapping, ardent account of Der Musensohn. German is, of course, Appl’s native tongue, but the communicative skill he shows with it goes far beyond that. A seductive, charming, and alternately joyous Ganymed had more than a hint of Mozart to it. The contrast was stark in a heart-stopping account of the strange Meeres Stille: stillness that yet moved. The concluding Erlkönig had it all, even when compared with the previous month’s memory of Waltraud Meier. Dramatic characterisation was every bit as strong; how it made one long to hear and indeed to see Appl on stage. So was tragic momentum, for which Ware was, of course, equally responsible. It had this listener in tears – and I doubt I was the only one.

Viola was a very different sort of song with which to open the second half. Ware’s quietly arresting piano prelude compelled one to listen, his beautifully pellucid tone preparing the way for Appl’s equally beautiful – never, of course, just beautiful – tone. The strength of Appl’s narrative was such as to sustain, even to heighten, what in lesser hands might outstay its welcome (similarly the later Drang in die Ferne). This was as gripping in its own way as Erlkönig, and perhaps a rarer pleasure still. A charming, good-humoured Totengräberlied followed: very much a performance. Programming Totengräbers Heimweh thereafter was a nice touch; we heard a dark, almost Bachian account. The ‘rr’ in ‘scharre’ was delivered as surely only a German could. More important was the transfiguration experienced in the final stanza. Ware gave a wonderful impression of what I am tempted to call the quasi-Magyar tendencies in the tread of Der Wanderer an den Mond, which then blossomed, unusually for Schubert, into something lighter. Time seemed almost to stand still in Der Wanderer; one almost wished there were no ‘almost’. Nachtstück offered a satisfyingly dark conclusion, albeit quite properly a conclusion that was far from unrelievedly dark. A strong sense of contentment was just the thing.

Mark Berry

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