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Benjamin Appl (baritone)
James Baillieu (piano)
rec October 2016 & Jan 2017, Studio 1, Bayerische Rundfunk, Germany
SONY CLASSICAL 88985393032 [66:54]

Heimat is one of those German words for which there is no simple translation. It means “homeland” but, unlike Vaterland, it suggests a place you long for rather than somewhere that inspires nationalistic pride, and it can take in people and states of mind as well as geographical places. It is a sufficiently knotty concept to sustain a classical concept album like this one. I’m not altogether sure that Benjamin Appl has managed to pull it off, however.

Appl has all the indications of a star-in-waiting, and I enjoyed his Wigmore Hall CD of last year (review). This is his first disc for his new label, and Sony have allowed him to curate a programme that is both an exploration of a concept in song and something uniquely personal to him. His idea of Heimat ranges from Heaven (Schubert’s Seligkeit) to the joyful nature-painting of Wolf’s Spring song Er ist’s, through to that deeply German identification with the land and, eventually, to Appl’s newly adopted home of the UK, for which we have a range of songs by British composers. There are three booklet essays (in English and German) to explain the concept, one of which is penned by no less a man than Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, who mentions that Appl was important in promoting the museum’s 2014 exhibition that was aimed at presenting Germany to the British public.

It’s very well put together, with a lot of intelligence, and I respect the bespoke element to it. Furthermore, there is definitely a lot to like about his interpretations. However, I have to admit that the voice is not quite as beguiling as I remember it. It has developed a slightly darker centre, giving it almost a somewhat nasal quality in places, something which undermines the peace of, say, Brahms’ Cradle Song. There's nothing wrong with his technique, and the clarity of his German is excellent, but I didn't detect as much depth or insight as I had hoped for (something which, looking back, I had also commented on in his Wigmore Hall disc). His reading of Schubert’s Hermit (Der Einsame), for example, is rather superficial, without tapping into the irony that is lurking there, and his perusal of the nocturnal landscape in Brahms’ Mondnacht feels like a Cook’s tour rather than a penetration into the soul. The same composer’s ‘Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund’ actually sounds rather rough to my ears, almost like a drinking song (which it definitely isn't!), and the disc’s main problem, for me, is that his approach to the songs is too simple, seeking one meaning where great interpreters open a window into many. For example, he captures nicely all the bluff straightforwardness of Schubert’s Wanderer to the Moon, but not the longing.

At the risk of damning with faint praise, he does well in songs where the variety is already laid out for him, such as Schreker’s Waldeinsamkeit, which sparkles as it runs through its different moods. He also captures the Cabaret tone of Adolf Strauss’s ‘Ich weiß bestimmt, ich werd’ dich wiedersehen’ and sings it very beguilingly (and you can forgive him for glossing over its horrible irony: the title translates ‘I am certain I will see you again’, but Strauss was murdered by the Nazis at the age of 42). Similarly, he is better at plumbing the depths of Schubert’s dark Wanderer, including the wistful longing of the second half. James Baillieu also makes a splendid accompanist. I loved the gentle twinkling of the keyboard that depicted the angels’ journey in Reger’s Child’s Prayer, and the Romanticism of the harmonies in Strauss’s Allerseelen sounds sensational under his fingers. In fact, there is often more suggestion and ambiguity in his accompaniment than there is in Appl’s singing, Schubert’s Nachtstück being a prime example.

In fact, and perhaps surprisingly, it was the section of British songs that I enjoyed the most. There is wit and sparkle in Poulenc’s Hyde Park, and he is very good in Silent Noon, even finding some folksiness in Home, Sweet Home. Even though you wouldn’t mistake him for a native speaker, his English diction is strong, and his young man’s take on the Warlock songs is very fitting, as is his meditative rendition of John Ireland’s very British take on the concept of home.

I guess there's a legitimate argument that I'm being too harsh about a young artist who is at the start of his career, but the things I miss are the things that mark out the great singers as truly great. Appl isn't there yet, though, of course, that doesn't preclude the possibility that he might get there. I worry a little, however, that he might not have been ready for a project like this yet, and that should send up warning signals. His poster-boy good looks would make him a prime candidate for too-much-too-soon, and I very much hope that Sony are going to manage (and mentor) him well.

Simon Thompson

Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Seligkeit D 433 [1:52]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Des Kindes Gebet op. 76/22 [1:38]
Hugo WOLF (1860-1903)
Er ist’s [1:23]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Wiegenlied op. 49/4 [1:55]
Der Einsame D 800 [4:19]
Johannes BRAHMS
Mondnacht WoO 21 [2:51]
Franz SCHEKER (1878-1934)
Waldeinsamkeit [3:06]
Johannes BRAHMS
Mein Mädel hat einen Rosenmund [1:57]
Verschwiegene Liebe [2:23]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Allerseelen op. 10/8 [3:08]
Nachtstück D 672 [6:02]
Drang in die Ferne D 770 [3:34]
Der Wanderer an den Mond D 870 [2:17]
Adolf STRAUSS (1902-1944)
Ich weiß bestimmt, ich werd’ dich wiedersehen [3:51]
Das Heimweh D 456 [1.22]
Der Wanderer D 489 [5.16]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Hyde Park FP 127/2 [0:48]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Greensleeves [2:05]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Silent Noon [4:00]
Henry Rowley BISHOP (1786-1855)
Home, Sweet Home [3:11]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
My Own Country [2:17]
The Bachelor [0:50]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
If There Were Dreams to Sell [2:24]
Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
An das Vaterland op. 58/2 [1:55]
Ein Traum op. 48/6 [2:30]



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