Benjamin Appl Excels Again in Schubert

08/03/2016

Schubert: Benjamin Appl (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 6.3.2016 (MB)

Adelaide, D 95; Lied aus der Ferne, D 107; An Emma, D 113; Abschied, D 475; Der entsühnte Orest, D 699; Freiwilliges Versinken, D 700; Die Mutter Erde, D 788; Der Einsame, D 800; Lied des gefangenen Jägers, D 843; Fülle der Liebe, D 854; Sehnsucht, D 879; Trinklied, D 888; An Silvia, D 891; An die Laute, D 905; Jägers Liebeslied, D 909; Herbst, D 945

At the risk of sounding too much like a stuck record, this was another fine recital – the third I have heard already this year – from Benjamin Appl. Unsurprisingly, his pianist, Graham Johnson, was not bad either, just as had been the case on 4th January! Where that had been a mixed programme, here, as just a week later (with Jonathan Ware), this was an all-Schubert recital. Programmed chronologically, the songs spanned the whole of the composer’s all-too-short career, beginning with three from 1814 and concluding with Herbst, from 1828.

When we think of Adelaide, we naturally think of Beethoven; Schubert’s setting proved still closer to Mozart. It received a stylish performance, which already announced the hallmarks of the recital as a whole: beautiful, even tone; diction beyond reproach; and a communicative skill second to none. In Lied aus der Ferne, the words also by Friedrich von Matthisson, some of the harmonies sound more unmistakeably Schubertian, likewise some of the piano turns of melodic phrase. If neither of those songs, nor Emma, is fully mature, it is of interest to hear them from time to time, especially in performances as alert as these. Johnson, as expected, made the most of the piano parts through long-standing knowledge; there was no grandstanding here.

The opening (and closing) chords of Abschied certainly caught the attention; they might almost have been by Liszt. (We perhaps tend to think of him as further removed from Schubert than he actually was; if the latter had lived longer, musical history would doubtless look – and sound – very different.) Taken at an effortlessly leisurely tempo, it revealed its secrets all the more effectively. Mayrhofer supplied the words for the following two songs too. Der entsühnte Orest offered Appl an opportunity, well taken indeed, to show quiet, patient, masculine strength: ‘… und murmelst sanft. „Triumph, Triumph!‟/Ich schwinge Schwert uns Speer.’ I really do not know what to make of the strange concluding lines to Die Mutter Erde (Friedrich Leopold Graf zu Stolbert-Stolberg). Seemingly out of nowhere, we are told that if only we should look upon the face of Mother Nature, we should not fear her bosom. They sounded almost reasonable here, especially if one concentrated upon the musical aspects. (It was not difficult to do so.)

Der Einsame brought a welcome change of mood. Johnson’s piano crickets chirped splendidly, very much part and parcel of a good-natured performance. It had its sterner moments too, as Appl reminded us: the ‘schwarm der lauten Welt’ cannot bring ‘Zufriedenheit’. Lied des gefangenen Jägers received an appropriately heroic rendition, which yet yielded where required. It and the ensuing Fülle der Liebe displayed very different, yet not entirely different, aspects of Romanticism. The depth of Johnson’s piano tone in the latter song was especially noteworthy. So were the words: ‘Ein Stern erschien mir vom Paradies’: they truly sounded as such. A keen sense of drama characterised Sehnsucht, emotional kinship with Schubert’s song-cycles undeniable.

The first of two Shakespeare settings, Trinklied, brought humorous contrast, especially the second time around, Appl slurring his speech to genuine comic effect. Mozart’s Osmin came to mind. An Silvia could hardly be more familiar, yet rarely can it have sounded so fresh, simply, or so it seemed, by letting it speak for itself. An die Laute offered a playful sense of the lute as instrument. Attentiveness to verbal meaning characterised Appl’s response to Jägers Liebeslied, quite without pedantry. Finally, at least so far as the published programme was concerned, Herbst sounded with Beethovenian purpose, albeit in an illustrative fashion that was unquestionably Schubert’s own. The sense of helplessness was heightened by vocal security and beauty. We were treated to two encores: a Ständchen so seductive it might have been sung by Don Giovanni, albeit with palpable sincerity, and the winning contrast of Das Fischermädchen.

Mark Berry

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