Benjamin Appl: SCHUBERT Lieder
Just a couple of months ago, Richard Fairman welcomed Benjamin Appl’s first fully fledged recital disc, a collection of Heine settings on Champs Hill Records, and hailed the young German baritone as ‘the current front-runner in the generation of Lieder singers’. This Wigmore Hall recital serves emphatically to underline that point, and, with Graham Johnson as a supportive and inspiring partner at the piano, it sees Appl in even more natural-sounding and impressive form.
His instinctive feel for these songs is immediately striking and manifests itself in the sort of artlessness that distinguishes the finest Lieder singers: a lack of tension, an easy relationship with the poetry, a confidence in the words and Schubert’s melodies to communicate with nothing but the gentlest helping interpretative hand. The voice, which occasionally felt pushed and ‘manufactured’ on the earlier disc, is here a great deal more relaxed. Appl’s is a light, honey-coloured baritone with a welcome hint of woodiness, and he deploys it with great sensitivity, not least in an expressive trick – favoured by Christian Gerhaher – of being able to withhold and gently apply vibrato at will. Occasionally one fears for the voice’s general robustness, and he starts to sound a little tired in ‘An den Tod’, but at its best it’s a wonderfully expressive and seductive instrument.
What distinguishes this recital, however, is the interpretations themselves, bringing freshness to familiar numbers and making a persuasive case for those that are heard less often. We start with a touchingly tender and chaste account of ‘Der Bach im Frühling’, after which Johnson’s accompaniment to ‘Der Wanderer an den Mond’ is a marvel of peacock-like prancing. The pianist gives a delicious bounce to ‘Fischerweise’ and has an unexpected, almost spiky way with the introduction to ‘Gruppe aus dem Tartarus’. Throughout there’s a pleasing sense of contrast between the Johnson’s sharply drawn contributions and Appl’s serene vocalism and gentle musicality (listen to the way he colours the phrase ‘Schwester Seele’ in ‘Verklärung’, around 1'20", for an example). Other highlights include a genuinely unnerving ‘Der Zwerg’ at the centre of the programme (one of few numbers followed by applause), and a delightful ‘Die Taubenpost’ to close – a disarming conclusion to an outstanding recital, and a beautifully recorded one too.