Town Hall, Birmingham, Monday 18th April, 2016
German baritone and rising star, Benjamin Appl treats the musically discerning folk of Birmingham to a sublime evening of lieder (German art songs) that displays not only his range as a vocalist but also his impressive expressiveness as an interpreter. Each song becomes a dramatic monologue; the programme runs the gamut of emotion and experience for a stirring, moving and astonishing performance.
Standing tall and slender in black suit, shirt and tie, Appl is an elegant figure and the voice that comes out of him is as rich as dark chocolate – but chocolate that comes in many flavours and sizes. Appl uses dynamics, contrasting ff and pp to dramatic effect.
The first half is all Schumann, with words by the poet Heine. And it’s in German, a language I haven’t studied since Year 9 (apart from what I’ve gleaned from The Magic Flute and Deutschland 83) – and yet I get the gist, thanks to Appl’s expressive interpretations. Du bist wie eine Blume (which I think means ‘you are like a flower’) is just lovely. Belsazar, though, is like a mini-opera in itself and really gives Appl the chance to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. When he declaims “I am the King of Babylon” (or so I think he says) you believe it.
Then come sixteen Dichterliebe (I don’t dare attempt a translation of that one!) – All of them brilliantly presented but highlights for me include the fast tempo Die Rose, die Lille, die Taube, the stunning Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ and the striking Ich grolle nicht. The aching melancholy of Hor’ ich das Liedchen klingen takes the prize though, in my ears.
The second half is given over to Schubert songs, and to The Last Letter, a piece by Nico Muhly especially commissioned for Appl. This five-song cycle takes its text from letters sent by various people during WW1 – again, an opportunity for Appl to do some character work. It’s a striking work (and in English!), encompassing yearning and loss, humour (a woman writes asking to have her husband back from the front for a conjugal visit!), selfishness and cruelty (a woman ditches her POW husband and bungs their kids in an orphanage so she can start a new life with a new man). Through it all, Appl acts up a storm, wringing humanity from every angle.
But it’s not all sturm und drang. The programme closes with some lighter Schubert pieces, including the jaunty Der Musensohn and the dramatic Der Wanderer.
Accompanying Appl on the piano is Gary Matthewman, providing sparkles and splashes, mood and colour, brio and thunder, where appropriate. It makes for a great pairing – if the piano is like an orchestra in a single instrument, then Appl is like an opera company in one man.
So, if you’re looking for German art songs, impeccably performed and entertainingly delivered, remember there’s an Appl for that.