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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Am Bach im Fruhling, D361 [3:52]
Der Wanderer an den Mond D870 [2:04]
Im Freien D880 [5:32]
Geheimes, D719 [1:48]
Das Lied im Grünen [5:31]
Fischerweise, D881 [3:24]
Verklarung D59 [3:38]
An den Tod D518 [3:04]
Der Zwerg, D771 [5:37]
An die Leier, D737 [3:37]
Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, second version, D583 [2:52]
Memnon, D541 [4:16]
Alinde, D904 [4:06]
Der Kampf D594 [5:16]
Die Gebüsche, D646 [2:59]
Im Abendrot, D799 [3:38]
Wiedersehn D855 [2:14]
Die Taubenpost, D965A [3:35]
Benjamin Appl (baritone)
Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. live, Wigmore Hall, London, 27 March 2015

This is a very promising debut disc.  Young German baritone Benjamin Appl is a BBC New Generation artist, a regular guest at the Schubertiade Festival, and the last private pupil of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.  When you know that, it’s almost inevitable to pick up traces of the great man’s influence in Benjamin Appl’s approach, but he’s dashed impressive even without that.  It’s a brave thing - and it invites inevitable comparisons - to begin your career on disc with a recital wholly dedicated to Schubert, but it’s testament to him that he carries it off so well.

The voice is on the dark side - there is a touch of ebony to his wide open vowel sounds, in particular - with a lovely middle and well defined bottom, albeit ever so slightly stretched on top. However, as a voice it's pretty unique.  I kept stretching for comparisons - all flattering ones! - with other baritones (Christian Gerhaher, Mathias Goerne or Andreas Schmidt, to name but three), but there’s something slightly indefinable about Appl’s voice that always made me cast the comparison aside.

He has a native speaker’s diction, too, and this serves him well as he walks us through Schubert’s word-painting.  There is a lovely sense of wide-eyed bliss in Das Lied im Grünen, or of the jollity of the everyday in Fischerweise, not to mention dusky horror in the Gruppe aus dem Tartarus.  In Verklärung he captures both the pain of existence and bliss of release in a most impressive manner, and Der Zwerg has a thrilling streak of horror running through it - listen to the coldness that enters the voice in the final stanza.  The dichotomy of the heroic and the romantic sits together well in An die Leier, and Alinde turns beautifully (if not quite darkly enough) on its final stanzas.  Im Abendrot illustrates the lyricism of his voice beautifully, and the final encore, Die Taubenpost, gives us a tantalising glimpse into how his Schwanengesang might one day sound.

Lovely as is the voice, though, you can tell he is just at the start of his professional journey, as several elements of Schubert’s art still elude him.  One of the greatest pleasures of listening to (or performing) Schubert is the way the composer so frequently yet delicately treads the line between pleasure and pain, joy and tragedy, and there are lots of places in these songs where the composer hints at something beneath the surface.  Appl gives it his best, but these are normally moments where only the greatest singers can enliven them as they deserve.  There is, for instance, a lovely sense of whimsy in Im Freien, though it lacks the undercurrent of melancholy that the song hints at ever-so-slightly.  Similarly, Geheimes is winningly jolly without quite finding the song’s touches of longing, and the profound depths of Memnon elude him somewhat, for all the beauty of his singing.  These are small things in the overall scheme, however, and no doubt Appl has them in his sights. The voice and technique are pretty much there; the rest will surely follow.

Like all Wigmore Hall discs, this was recorded live at a recital so there are a couple  of patches of applause, but on the whole the audience are very well behaved and you wouldn’t know they were there (the last two tracks are billed as Encores).  This is definitely a young singer to watch.

Simon Thompson



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