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!

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: