Interview: Benjamin Appl

Of the many fine young singers coming through in classical music currently, few have a voice quite as memorable as Benjamin Appl (above). The German baritone, a BBC New Generation Artists performer, has been making quite an impact on audiences worldwide, and more recently wowed the Gramophone awards with a rendition of Carl Millöcker’s aria Dunkelrote Rosen from Gasparone. In this chat with Arcana, which took place a few months back, he talked about his first album for Sony Classical, Heimat, and the influence of legendary singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on his work. But first…

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

I grew up in Regensburg in Bavaria. I don’t remember my very first encounters but my mum is musical, and played guitar. I grew up with folk music, lullabies, classical music and the church. My older brother, six years older than me, was banned from attending the boys’ choir in our home town (the Regensburger Domspatzen). My parents were against it completely but he won the battle after six or seven years. My second brother followed, then as a natural process it was me. I sang a lot of church music and choral music – some of it in German but a lot of Latin.

When did you start to take singing lessons, and realise that singing was going to be a career?

The system is a bit different to that in England. When your voice breaks, you continue as part of a boys’ choir, and start as a young male voice. At the age of 15-16 I started as a young baritone, and had a very supportive teacher who introduced me to a lot of new repertoire. I worked in a bank for two years, then in business administration, and while I was doing that I started studying singing for fun. More and more I changed my direction, and around the beginning of 2009 I did my business administration diploma. Then I moved to London to study at the Guildhall. It was not an overnight decision but was a shift in my thinking.

What have you learned from working with someone as well established as Graham Johnson?

It’s a wonderful collaboration. When I met him he was on the panel of a singing competition in Germany. He was the professor of song at the Guildhall when I was there. He had a wonderful ability to change the student-teacher dynamic to an equal partnership of colleagues on the stage. For songs he is definitely ‘Mr Lied’, and his knowledge of this is like nobody else. He knows where the texts are and has been incredibly helpful in putting texts together for this release.

The idea for Heimat was one that had been in my mind for some time, and generally before I worked with Graham Johnson I was working with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. He taught me that song recitals should be either for one composer or in groups so the audience could get into one composer. I saw that Graham Johnson had created a concept of recital programmes with the Songmaker’s Almanac, and I was inspired by him and his art of putting songs together for this album.

I took this as a topic so I went to the library and made a list of songs that were related to Heimat or speaking about it, then others that were not so related but related to my personal Heimat or experiences. I had a huge list, so it was challenging to cut it down to 65 minutes or so of music. It is always difficult to translate or explain Heimat, to get a sense of what it means in the UK, so some sections take in the place I was born, children’s songs I relate to, and then the idea of space or locations where people belong to – the country or a house. It also looks at the people I connect to, and feel comfortable with. There are a lot of different aspects to the program, so I wanted to explain it in a personal sense.

I also thought it should be in both German and English, so it might look like a complete mess but when you listen it works rather nicely. That said, the world of song is such a bubble within the bubble of classical music, but it is a small bubble that people will hopefully discover. I hope one or the other person will be attracted to it. Songs will always belong to a smaller audience, as they are such an intimate art form, but I am hoping there are people who will react and get an audience for song.

Who do you particularly admire in the form of song?

As a German baritone I think Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau will always be the first, but I also admire Felicity Lott, who I found to be so kind and modest after such a wonderful career. I would also say Thomas Allen, and Thomas Hampson too. These are all people who have done all the three genres so well – song, solo singing with orchestra and opera.

What have you learned from working with someone as fresh and talented as James Baillieu?

I find working with both Graham Johnson and James very different of course. With James it is more like a journey of exploring things and trying things out, starting from a sheet of white paper from where you can write things out. With Graham Johnson, with his experience, you have a discussion but always realise he is absolutely right! In every part of life you explore these things and they bring you a greater learning experience. I really like the mixture of both collaborations; it’s inspirational to work with different people, like playing tennis with someone who has a different style. It brings out different sides of your character.

I first saw you sing in the Wigmore Hall. Do you think it is the ideal venue for singers – and what other venues have you enjoyed singing in?

Absolutely. There is no place in the world that compares to it. It also helps greatly that the chairman John Gilhooly is supporting song as an art form so much, with people who believe in it. It’s the perfect venue, the acoustic and the audience, like a temple for the form. In Germany people go to the string quartet, and it is often difficult to get them to go to a song recital as people think they’re old fashioned. They think that because the songs use words we don’t use anymore, or they think all the songs are about death! Yet even when we don’t know all the words the emotions of love, losing someone, rejection, pain, are all feelings we belong to. I would like to explore and show this art form should not always be given on an intellectual platform. The texts are so important we often lose the emotional connection. That’s how we can belong and relate to the song.

Did Sony give you confidence for promoting song as an art form?

This was one of the reasons I signed. They gave me complete freedom in what I wanted and helped me to be brave to do a song disc. It is a challenge, and it gives me the chance to present myself in an art form like song. It’s great to have this level of support from a major label, one that looks after singers like Christian Gerhaher and Jonas Kaufmann, who are two of the major players.

Are you also working with bigger forces than piano?

Absolutely, I love to sing in the oratorio tradition, and also in orchestral songs. I have sung Schubert orchestrated by Brahms, Mahler songs, and in the Bach oratorios. I’m doing a lot and the next album I do will be with an orchestra. When I was a New Generations Artist I did a lot of that. It is important to do two or three genres of singing – and for me the main three are opera, concert and lied. They enrich each other vocally and mentally.

Some of our Arcana readers will not be very familiar with Lieder. Would you recommend Schubert as the best way in, or a mixture of composers perhaps?

It is always difficult as taste is a very individual thing, but generally it depends on your background. There is some wonderful English song on the Heimat disc, like Vaughan Williams songs or Britten folksong arrangements. It’s very individual how you connect to music, so even if there is just one piece from that moment you can discover more. There is more Schubert, but then he is the father of song so hopefully you can find one song you like!

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