Partying like it’s 1899: two lieder recitals reviewed

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

4 November 2017

9:00 AM

If a symphony is, as Mahler famously put it, ‘like the world’, then songs and lieder are like seeing that world in Blake’s grain of sand. Their span may be short, but their emotional horizon is infinite — a lyric window on to an epic landscape. And yet there’s something about a song recital that sets up quite a different expectation.

Maybe it’s the venues. Entering the Wigmore Hall or Oxford’s Holywell Music Room still feels like stepping into another, older world. Politeness, not passion, is the overriding sensation of well-heeled audiences with their well-thumbed programmes, prepared for 90 minutes of just-enough-but-not-too-much musical excitement. Maybe it’s the genre itself; you won’t hear much lieder on Classic FM because apparently it ‘doesn’t test well’ with focus groups.

But perhaps that’s all part of the process — an expectation set up, as by the closed curtains of a theatre, which then rise to reveal something quite unexpected. Symphonies may bludgeon out their emotional response, but songs are a stealth attack, masked with a smile. The impact of that attack depends entirely on the performer, and this is where this genre comes into its own — home, as it is, to a younger generation of artists whose talent is as fresh as their audiences are, well, not. Two recitals this week gave us a glimpse into the genre’s future, and it’s a bright one, if only the concert-goers can survive to see it.

In dynastic terms the young German baritone Benjamin Appl is lieder royalty. The last private pupil of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he’s inherited not just the mantle but many of the elder singer’s traits: his care for text (diction that can cradle and caress a word or propel it away, as from a pistol), his thoughtful phrasing, his range of tone-colour. A long-term, exclusive contract with Sony last year put the seal on his promise, and if it’s still a voice-in-progress, it’s one whose progress over the past few years has been remarkably swift.

Themed loosely around the East, this Wigmore recital with pianist Graham Johnson offered an eclectic collection of lieder from Brahms, Schubert and Schumann, but also Carl Loewe (the wonderfully generous Byron-setting ‘Alles ist eitel, spricht der Prediger’) and Peter Cornelius. Opening with a sequence of Schubert and Brahms at their most bitter, a physically uneasy Appl struggled to convert tension into emotion. But the sense of warmth and ease when he at last released it into Brahms’s lovely ‘Wie bist du, meine Königin’ was worth the wait — rapt and heady as it was with love (if not quite that tremor of lust that should shudder through the suggestive final verse).

Having found his stride, Appl came into his own in the narrative songs of the second half. He’s a compelling musical storyteller, alive to the smallest flickers of humour or pathos in a text and Schumann’s ‘Belsazzar’, Wolf’s ‘Epiphanias’ and Cornelius’s ‘Drei Könige’ (the song original of the much-loved Christmas anthem) all unfolded with meaning first, music a natural and unforced second. Once he has a mezza voce whose controlled fragility can balance his fullest resonance, Appl will be the total package. Though for barihunk enthusiasts (check out the website) he probably already is.

A stormingly strong turn as Eisenstein in Opera Holland Park’s Die Fledermaus last summer revealed a side we’ve not seen before of British tenor Ben Johnson. That same spirit of late 19th-century camp ran through much of his Oxford Lieder Festival recital last week, whose Mahler songs (obedient to this year’s festival theme) felt like the sober headline under which were smuggled in the real treats — works by Parry, Elgar and Amy Woodforde-Finden. There’s a real skill to delivering songs whose language (both textual and musical) is of another age — bright with ‘jocund fancies’ and frequent trips down ‘Rapture’s roadway’ to the ‘hills of Dreamland’ — and Johnson’s ardent, absolutely straight sincerity (the merest twinkle of amusement would pop the perfumed bubble of Woodforde-Finden’s ‘Kashmiri Song’) and his flexible, Italianate tenor served them well.

There’s an old-fashioned quality to Johnson’s singing — his precise vowels, the brightness of his tone, the lack of concealment of the art-behind-the-art – that comes into its own in this repertoire. At his best at full throttle, he thrived in the overheated emotion of Parry’s ‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead’ and Quilter’s ‘Fair House of Joy’, while allowing just the right amount of rueful amusement to shade the ‘Hey nonny nonnys’ of ‘It was a lover and his lass’.

Pianist James Baillieu, as much co-conspirator as accompanist, was alive to all Johnson’s play with text and mood, dispatching these swooning, swaggering accompaniments with bags of panache. This may have been a recital steeped in nostalgia, but who needs modernity when you can party like it’s 1899.

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