Baritone Benjamin Appl explores the mysteries of the dark in his Carnegie Hall debut

United StatesUnited States Various: Benjamin Appl (baritone), James Baillieu (piano). Carnegie Hall, New York, 20.5.2023. (RP)

Benjamin Appl (baritone) and James Baillieu (piano) © Richard Termine

For his Carnegie Hall debut recital, baritone Benjamin Appl immersed the audience in the mysteries of the night. He and pianist James Baillieu explored the beauty and romance as well as the terrors associated with the dark. It was a remarkable journey and, hopefully, the first of many appearances in New York.

The program (see below) was drawn primarily from the German and British song repertoire. Appropriately so, in that Appl was the final protege of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one of the foremost Lieder singers of the second half of the twentieth century. Baillieu, who is South African by birth, attended the Royal College of Music in London and has made Great Britain his artistic home. He regularly collaborates with many of today’s finest singers.

The recital revealed why Appl, who is forty years old, is acclaimed as one of the great interpreters of song of his generation. For all the beauty of his lyric baritone, that attribute was heard sparingly in the recital. Appl instead used his voice to depict words and create moods that often were poignant and sorrowful and required a wide array of sounds to express them. When he did reveal his voice at its most beautiful, it was if a ray of lustrous moonlight pierced the dark.

Baillieu was an equal partner in this musical journey. Indeed, the recital opened with the extended prelude to Schubert’s ‘Nachtstück’ and concluded with the extended postlude of Strauss’s ‘Morgen’. This as much as anything signaled that the program was envisioned as a musical whole, rather than a collection of songs to showcase the singer.

Included among the German Lieder were an intoxicatingly sensual performance of Strauss’s ‘Ständchen’, a gripping account of Schumann’s ‘Belsatzar’ and a terrifying rendition of Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’. The gentle lyricism of Schoenberg’s ‘Warum bist du aufgewacht’ was expressed in the softest and most lyrical of sounds by Appl. Their performance of Wolf’s ‘An die Geliebte’, with the tenderest emotions expressed in the most delicate of musical brushstrokes by both, reaffirmed why Wolf is justly deemed to be one of the finest of all song composers.

Appl’s suave lyricism was enchanting in Reynaldo Hahn’s ‘L’heure exquise’, while his emotionally fueled singing in Tchaikovsky’s ‘In the Midst of the Ball’ earned him the well-deserved bravo that rang through the hall as its final notes sounded. Appl’s voice in Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Infinite Shining Heaven’ was as transparent and glistening as the night skies of which he sang. In William Bolcom’s ‘Song of Black Max’, Appl took on the persona of a world weary, jaded balladeer as he told the tale of the mysterious man dressed in black. The final silent utterance of the words ‘Mad Max’ added to the intrigue.

The most emotionally wrenching songs were those that addressed the depths of unimaginable but all-too-real darkness. The first song, Schubert’s ‘Der blinde Knabe’, was the exception. It is a setting of a poem about a boy who was blind from birth and cannot mourn for the loss of something he has never known, and Appl instilled it with a sense of innocence and wonder.

Included in the group were two songs by Ilse Weber, a Jewish author, singer and songwriter born in the former Czechoslovakia, who was transported to the Nazi ghetto in Theresienstadt (Terezin). Her passion was children, and she not only cared for those interred in Theresienstadt, she also composed nursery rhymes, lullabies and poetry to comfort them. The deceptively simple songs, however, contained descriptions of the horrors she witnessed and experienced.

In ‘Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt’, Appl sang of Weber’s yearning for home in plaintive tones that were perhaps the most beautiful of any heard that evening. The final verse, in which Weber described the difficulty of her existence there, was voiced as a simple, childlike prayer. It ended softly and poignantly, with Weber questioning whether the sorrows would ever end and if she would ever be free again.

Appl sang Weber’s ‘Wiegala’ with profound sadness. It was a lullaby she used to comfort the children whom she voluntarily accompanied to the Auschwitz gas chambers. Neither song, however, was as horrific and emotionally devastating as James MacMillan’s ‘The Children’ which followed.

It is a setting of the Scottish poet William Soutar’s poem, inspired by his anguish over the atrocities committed in the Spanish Civil War. Appl sang MacMillan’s stark vocal lines with a haunting tone, as if shrinking from the images. The accompaniment is bare and jagged, until the very end when Baillieu produced a cataclysmic wail of sound from the piano. Who knew that such a sound could come from the instrument?

Without lifting his foot from the pedal, Baillieu began to play the prelude to Strauss’s “Morgen’, the final work on the program. Appl sang it as the most intimate of exchanges between lovers, with particular attention to mood and text. The recital ended as it had begun with the song’s transcendent postlude that depicts daybreak and rebirth through sound alone.

For an encore, Appl and Baillieu performed ‘Ich weiss bestimmt, ich werd dich Wiedersehen’ by Adolf Strauss, one of the Jewish composers interred at Terezin. It is a bittersweet song of love, longing and hope, with a tuneful, sophisticated melody that he composed only a few weeks before he was murdered at Auschwitz. It is all but impossible to imagine such a song was composed in so horrible a place.

Rick Perdian

Schubert – ‘Nachtstück’ D.672, ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ D.774, ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ D.870, ‘Erlkönig’ D.328, ‘Der blinde Knabe’ D.833
Tchaikovsky – ‘In the Midst of the Ball’ Op.38, No.3
R. Strauss – ‘Ständchen’ Op.17, No. 2, ‘Morgen!’, Op.27, No.4
Hahn – ‘L’heure exquise’ (from Chansons grises)
Somervell – ‘White in the Moon the Long Road Lies’ (from A Shropshire Lad)
Vaughan Williams – ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’ (from Songs of Travel)
R. Schumann – ‘Mein schöner Stern!’ Op.101, No.4, ‘Belsatzar’ Op.57, ‘Zwielicht’ Op.39, No.10 (from Liederkreis), ‘Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass’ Op.98a, No.4
Bolcom – ‘Song of Black Max’ (from Cabaret Songs)
Quilter – ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ Op.3, No.2
Gurney – ‘Sleep’ (from Five Elizabethan Songs)
Brahms – ‘Wie rafft ich mich auf in der Nacht’ Op.32, No.1
Schoenberg – ‘Warum bist du aufgewacht’ (Nachtblumen)
Wolf – ‘An die Geliebte’
Greig – ‘Ein Traum’ Op.48, No.6
Weber – ‘Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt’, ‘Wiegala’
James MacMillan – ‘The Children’

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