Wigmore Mondays – Benjamin Appl & Graham Johnson

benjamin-appl-graham-johnson

Benjamin Appl (baritone) and Graham Johnson (piano) perform settings of the poetry of Joseph von Eichendorff

Wigmore Hall, London

Monday, 4 January 2016

Audio (open in a new window)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06tkp3w

Available until 3 February

What’s the music?

Schumann (1810-1856): Frühlingsfahrt Op.45/2 (1840); Der Einsiedler Op.83/3 (1850; Der frohe Wandersmann Op.77/1 (1840)

Mendelssohn (1809-1847): Pagenlied (1832); Nachtlied Op.71/6 (1847); Wanderlied Op.57/6 (1841)

Brahms (1833-1897): In der Fremde Op.3/5; Mondnacht; Parole Op.7/2; Anklänge Op.7/3 (all 1852-1853)

Pfitzner (1869-1949): In Danzig Op.22/1 (1907); Der Gärtner Op.9/1 (1888-9); Zum Abschied meiner Tochter Op.10/3 (1901)

Wolf (1860-1903): Nachruf (1880); Das Ständchen; Der Musikant; Der Scholar; Der Freund (all 1888)

Spotify

Benjamin Appl has not yet recorded any of this repertoire, but a reproduction of his program using available versions can be accessed below, for listeners who cannot hear the BBC broadcast. Where possible I have used recordings made by Appl’s mentor, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau:

About the music

Joseph_Eichendorff

Joseph von Eichendorff (picture used courtesy of Wikipedia)

With around 5,000 song settings of Joseph von Eichendorff’s poetry from the 19th century alone – with thanks to BBC Radio 3 announcer Sara Mohr-Pietsch for the info! – Benjamin Appl and Graham Johnson had no trouble making up a concert of 18 ‘lieder’ for the first Wigmore Hall lunchtime concert of the year.

Their choice gives an intriguing insight into different approaches to the poet. Broadly speaking, Schumann ranges from love-laden to thoughtful and a little morose (though his selection comprises three prayers), Mendelssohn is either forthright or reflective in his three songs; the youthful Brahms is surprisingly relaxed, while Pfitzner emerges as an inventive painter. Perhaps the most striking examples here come from Hugo Wolf, who wanted to focus on the ‘comparatively unknown humourously and robustly sensual side’ of von Eichendorff’s poetry.

Performance verdict

A slightly downbeat return for the WIgmore Hall in 2016, but a concert that was beautifully performed. The pairing of an incredibly experienced pair of hands in Graham Johnson and a singer starting out on his artistic voyage in Benjamin Appl was a good match and yielded many rewards.

Several songs left lasting impressions from the program, among them two from Brahms, with Appl’s control throughout Mondnacht and the picture painting from Johnson in Parole especially notable.

It was good to hear some rarely-sung lieder of Hans Pfitzner, whose use of the piano’s lowest end brought a wholly new texture to In Danzig, while the Wolf selection reminded us how original he could be in his song settings, the piano cast in a prominent role of scene setting, one that Johnson relished and used to his great advantage.

What should I listen out for?

Schumann

2:06 – Frühlingsfahrt (A spring journey) – the initial optimism of this march is quite bracing, but it soon subsides as the poet thinks of old age.

5:31 – Der Einsiedler (The hermit) – quite a sad song, solemn and lost in thought. Again old age is a preoccupation, the piano supporting the vocal melody as a walking stick might support the physical frame.

9:02 – Der frohe Wandersmann (The happy wanderer) – a much more positive, open-air march that talks of streams ‘rushing down the mountains’ and larks that ‘soar heavenwards’. More spring than winter!

Mendelssohn

11:03 – Pagenlied (Page’s song) – a tentative detached figure in the piano part adds to the tension of this song, which is relatively subdued and distracted.

13:11 – Nachtlied (Night song) – there is a withdrawn feel to this song also, until the Nightingale is encouraged to sing out at 14:39.

16:12 – Wanderlied (Song of travel) – a typically busy piano part from Mendelssohn gives the impression of rapid movement, the traveller set on his way with the minimum of fuss – and happily so!

Brahms

20:49 – In der Fremde (In a foreign land) – a rather downcast setting in a minor key, the poet in reflective mood. The piano hints at a major key near the end but such thoughts are quickly forgotten.

22:12 – Mondnacht (Moonlight) – dappled piano lines suggest moonlight in the branches, and there is a more romantic mood, with yearning vocal lines.

25:03 – Parole (Password) – again Brahms thinks privately, using vivid picture painting from the piano that depicts the huntsman through distant calls but also the ‘one last shot’ (26:44), where Johnson adds extra emphasis.

28:02 – Anklänge (Echoes) – a short but evocative song of two halves, the first depicting a lonely house in a forest, the second greeting the maiden inside.

Pfitzner

30:07 – In Danzig – the mood changes dramatically in this darkly coloured song exploiting the lower range of both piano and singer. The mysterious and faintly menacing mood is aided by elusive harmonic movements.

34:38 – Der Gärtner (The Gardener)­ – this song is more conventional in its language, looking back to Schumann and Brahms. The mood is positive and quite dreamy, but reaches a very impressive climax at the end with the words ‘Viel schöne, hohe Fraue, Grüss ich dich tausendmal’ (‘I, lovely gracious lady, greet you a thousand times’)

38:08 – Zum Abschied meiner Tochter (Farewell to my daughter) – a positive farewell, and an expansive setting that reaches another impressive climax at 40:07.

Wolf

42:58 – Nachruf (In memoriam) – the piano imitates the lute in this song as Appl sings a gentle lament

47:06 Das Ständchen (The serenade) – a watery piano introduces an adventurous setting that contains the tune of a serenade but some unconventional dissonances between voice and piano. There is a great deal of sadness in this song.

50:27 – Der Musikant (The minstrel) – the choice of music over marriage is made here by the singer! As if to emphasise his decision there is a rather lovely piano introduction that proves to be the bedrock of the song.

52:14 – Der Scholar (The scholar) – there are a number of examples of picture painting in the piano part for this song, depicting the ‘little birds’ and the rain that ‘rattles on the leaves’. Again the singer extols the virtues of making music but occasionally with a few too many wines! (53:40)

54:55 – Der Freund (The friend) – The joy of friendship is celebrated here, though not without travelling through a storm or two (55:30) where the crushing piano and loud voice descend into brief turmoil before emerging triumphant.

Encore (not heard on the broadcast)

Verschwiegene Liebe (Silent Love) The twinkling piano introduction was followed here by a sensitive and grateful rendition from Appl.

Further listening

As a complement to the concert, how about a recital based on poems by Heinrich Heine? Anothre great influence on 19th century vocal music, Heine’s music was set by a number of composers – and here the great tenor Christoph Prégardien and fortepianist Andreas Staier look at songs by Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn:

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