Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Benjamin Johnson/ Benjamin Appl

Magazine article The Spectator

Music: Benjamin Johnson/ Benjamin Appl

Article excerpt

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). …

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