Wigmore Mondays – Benjamin Appl & Kristian Bezuidenhout: Schumann, Loewe, Mendelssohn & Zelter

Benjamin Appl (baritone, above), Kristian Bezuidenhout (fortepiano, below)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 16 September 2019 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Lieder can be downright miserable sometimes, as Benjamin Appl acknowledged when thanking us for attending this recital of ‘jolly German music’, with which the Wigmore Hall opened their 2019-20 season of BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts.

Appl, a baritone of ever-growing reputation, was performing with Kristian Bezuidenhout, who played a Blüthner fortepiano dating back to Leipzig in 1856 – the year of Schumann’s death. The instrument, an attractive rosewood colour, proved the ideal foil for an interesting programme looking at the Lied in Germany around the first half of the 19th century. In an hour we covered some little known ground from the output of Schumann himself, complemented by settings by Mendelssohn, Zelter and Loewe.

The pairing began with three later Robert Schumann songs, all based around the character Harper, from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Schumann set the songs in 1849, the centenary of the poet’s birth. Appl stood tall and upright in front of the piano, communicating directly with the audience through his eyes as well as his voice. Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass (Who never ate his bread in tears) was a sombre note on which to start, though the pain eased a little before the end, Bezuidenhout’s spread chords giving an indication of the fortepiano’s rounded sound. Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt (Who gives himself to loneliness) had a penetrating delivery from the singer, with a dark and unsettled postlude from the piano, while An die Türen will ich schleichen (From door to door will I steal) had a slightly lighter touch.

There followed three songs by Mendelssohn setting the poetry of Nikolaus Lenau. The short song An die Entfernte (To the distant beloved) danced lightly and was nicely phrased, before the nocturnal Schilflied (Reed song) was distracted and occasionally lost in thought. Frühlingslied (Spring song) emphatically blew away the cobwebs, the positive energy of the new season blowing the dark thoughts away.

The music of Carl Friedrich Zelter, a good friend of Goethe, is not often heard in the concert hall these days. He had his friend’s blessing however, the author approving of his direct methods of word setting, without too much in the way of musical dressing. His three Harfenspieler are bold settings and Appl sung them with clarity here, hitting the high notes of the second song with impressive intensity. Bezuidenhout was subtle in his complementary melodic lines on the fortepiano.

Contrasting with these were the dramatic songs of Carl Loewe. Herr Oluf is a self-contained Danish legend against the dangers of meeting Elves, and was performed with no quarter given, a terrific introduction from Bezuidenhout setting the energy level high. On occasion the singer has quite an unusual melodic profile, but this was straightforward for Appl’s vivid interpretation. The mischievous Hinkende Jamben was gone in an instant, with its mannerisms and lisps, before an expansive introduction to Tom der Reimer brought a grand tone from the singer. In a legend comparable in profile to Herr Oluf, it finished with brightly ringing bells, courtesy of Bezuidenhout’s picture painting.

When Schumann made his six settings of Lenau’s verse, he added a short Requiem in the mistaken knowledge that the poet had died. However when the day of the first performance arrived in 1850, news reached the gathering that Lenau had only just passed away, making the composer’s tribute strangely prophetic.

It is a dark cycle, reflecting perhaps the struggles of both men with mental illness – but illustrating at the same time the inner strength that music and poetry gave them. The steely Lied eines Schmiedes (Blacksmith’s Song) found Appl gathering himself with impressive projection, before the mood and heart softened a little for a languid account of Meine Rose (My Rose). Meanwhile Kommen und Scheiden (Meeting and Parting) had a devastating pay-off in the form of the emphasised last word, where the ‘last dream of my youth was taking leave of me’

Die Sennin (The Cowgirl) began with flowing piano, which led to Appl’s ringing delivery of ‘spring’s first song in the trees’, one of the recital’s most memorable moments. From there the cycle took a darker tone, Bezuidenhout breeding anxiety with the restless fortepiano line of Einsamkeit (Solitude), where Appl’s vocal was bold, and then to Der schwere Abend (The Sultry Evening) which was darker still, with a cold final line ‘to wish us both dead’. Thankfully the Requiem itself – a short Latin text – offered consolation and rest, as well as a rousing central section looking to the heavens.

This was a magnificent recital, with grace and power in equal measure from both performers, and the sound of the fortepiano a real treat in complement to Appl’s caramel tone. As a bonus we heard Mendelssohn’s Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On Wings of Song), finishing in celebratory mood.

Repertoire

Benjamin Appl and Kristian Bezuidenhout performed the following songs (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Schumann Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt Op.98a/6 (1:54); Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass Op.98a/4 (4:55); An die Türen will ich schleichen Op.98a/8 (all 1849)
Mendelssohn An die Entfernte Op.71/3 (1842) (9:56); Schilflied Op.71/4 (1832 (11:17); Frühlingslied Op.47/3 (14:08) 1839)
Zelter Harfenspieler I-III (18:03)
Loewe Herr Oluf Op.2/2 (24:18) Hinkende Jamben (29:51); Tom der Reimer (30:35)
Schumann 6 Gedichte von Nikolaus Lenau & Requiem, Op.90 (37:53). Individual songs: Lied eines Schmiedes (37:53), Meine Rose (39:05), Kommen und Scheiden (42:52), Die Sennin Schöne (44:00), Einsamkeit (46:08), Der schwere Abend (49:11), Requiem (50:49)

Encore – Mendelssohn Auf Flügeln des Gesanges Op.34/2 (56:07)

Further listening

Benjamin Appl has not yet recorded any of the repertoire in this concert, save the encore, but suitable recorded versions can be heard on this Spotify playlist:

Christoph Prégardien – The Darker Side of Love

The Darker Side of Love – Christoph Prégardien and Daniel Heide at the Wigmore Hall

christoph-pregardien

Christoph Prégardien (tenor), Daniel Heide (piano) – Wigmore Hall, London, live on BBC Radio 3, 18 May 2015

Listening link (opens in a new window):

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05tpryp

on the iPlayer until 17 June

Spotify

In case you cannot hear the broadcast, I have put together a Spotify playlist of most of the music in this concert, including recordings the artists have made where possible. The playlist can be found here

What’s the music?

Schubert: An den Mond, D259; Schäfers Klagelied, D121

Schubert: Erster Verlust, D226

Schubert: Rastlose Liebe, D138

Schubert: Wandrers Nachtlied II, D768

Schubert: Willkommen und Abschied, D767 (17 minutes)

Schumann: Dichterliebe, Op.48 (30 minutes)

What about the music?

The relationship between Schubert and the poetry of Goethe was long-standing, beginning in October 1814 and yielding tens of songs. Many of them are darker utterances, and the collection here enjoys the composer’s ability to cast a nocturnal scene for voice and piano seemingly at will. It also celebrates his faster, galloping songs, the singer in the saddle for an action-packed horse ride, while the sheer simplicity of shorter songs such as Erster Verlust is pure and touching.

Schumann’s famous year of song reached its creative peak in May 1840, when he wrote the Liederkreis, published as Op.39, and Dichterliebe, where he sought inspiration once again from the poetry of Heinrich Heine. The quote in the Wigmore Hall program sums it up perfectly, Schumann describing the verses as ‘short, maliciously sentimental, and written in the folk style’. They evoke outdoor scenes but also inward and often crippling emotions, the singer – and possibly the listener! – an emotional liability by the end. Schumann rescues Dichterliebe, however, through the piano postludes he provides to Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen (One bright summer morning) and the closing song Die altern, bösen Lieder (The bad old songs), attempting and largely succeeding to restore stability.

Performance verdict

Christoph Prégardien has been singing these songs (or ‘Lieder’, as we should really call them!) for a long time – he recorded most of them a while back – but he still brings keen emotion to the stage.

The silence of Wigmore Hall during a song as tense as Schumann’s Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet (I wept in my dream), the ninth of Dichterliebe’s dozen, said it all. Here was a performer creating vivid pictures from Heine’s barbed text and Schumann’s equally frosty responses to the dark side.

In Schubert, too, the steely edge of even the most youthful Goethe setting could be glimpsed, brought out in an early song like An den Mond (To the Moon) by pianist Daniel Heide, stressing the notes Schubert brings in to challenge the happier times of the song.

Schubert’s horse-riding songs, Rastlose Liebe and Wilkommen und Abschied, were adrenalin-fuelled dashes into the country, while Schäfers Klaglied brilliantly evoked both the tempest and its subsequent rainbow.

Prégardien is an unfussy singer who communicates with his audience through subtle but meaningful expression, both visually and with the use of his hands. This somehow carries over to the listener too, either in the hall or at home, part of a masterclass in how to sing these songs.

What should I listen out for?

Schubert

1:50 – An den Mond (To the Moon) A calm and seemingly contented song to begin the selection – though there are some warning signs, chiefly in the piano part, to suggest all is not well.

5:27 – Schäfers Klagelied (Shepherd’s lament) A downcast and solemn song, with a vivid depiction of a storm in its central section from the piano (from 6:55), which also somehow describes the resultant rainbow (7:13) before a return to sadness.

8:58 – Erster Verlust (First loss) A song of striking simplicity and sadness, with an aching melody where the purity of Prégardien’s tone really comes through

11:22 – Rastlose Liebe (Restless love) A song that gallops out of the blocks with its rapid movement on the piano, and the breathless voice almost struggles to keep up. Meine signs off beautifully at 12:30.

12:47 – Wandrers Nachtlied II (Wanderer’s Nightsong II) Here we can feel the stillness of a summer evening, the conditions in which Goethe scribbled the verses for this poem as he stood outside in a garden. Prégardien’s higher notes are beautifully tailored.

15:18 – Willkommen und Abschied (Greeting and farewell) Another of Schubert’s quick dashes through the text, though at the end of each verse we have a pregnant pause. Prégardien cries out ‘ihr Götter’ (‘O gods!’) at 17:17. The text at the end translates as ‘what a joy to be loved’

Schumann

The words for Dichterliebe can be found here

21:12 – Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (In the wondrous month of May) A graceful song to begin the cycle, with some beautiful top notes (the translated words ‘blossom’ and ‘desire’) that Prégardien very subtly stresses through a pause.

22:54 – Aus meinen Tränen sprießen (From my tears will spring) The spring-like openness continues, in the same key.

23:51 – Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne (Rose, lily, dove) A playful song, over in a flash!

24:23 – Wenn ich in deine Augen seh (When I look into your eyes) A tender love song, that tellingly moves to the purity C major to tell of how ‘when I kiss your lips, then I am wholly healed’. There is a yearning postlude on the piano.

26:12 – Ich will meine Seele tauchen (Let me bathe my soul) Another short love song, this time with a flowing, watery piano accompaniment.

27:08 – Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome (In the Rhine, the holy river) The singer adopts a much more imposing tone to evoke the grandeur of the Rhine and the great cathedral of Cologne, where hangs an image of ‘Our beloved Lady’ – which the singer equates to that of his own love. The piano postlude is reminiscent of a Baroque aria.

29:16 – Ich grolle nicht (I bear no grudge) The text turns darker, though the musical language is still generally positive. The tenor has a heavier tone here, the voice more of a baritone in its richness.

30:49 – Und wüßten’s die Blumen, die kleinen (If the little flowers only knew) The piano matches the tenor in this flowing, limpid song – spring like in its subject matter but ultimately sad and regretful at a broken heart. This leads straight into…

32:05 – Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen (What a fluting and fiddling) A proud song but once again with a darker centre.

33:29 – Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen (When I hear the little song) This is Heine’s poetry at its coldest, and in this brief song it gets a suitably bare response from Schumann, who then attempts some consolation in the extended piano postlude, which in reality says just as much as the song does.

35:47 – Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen (A boy loves a girl) A more positive mood now – but soon the poetry turns dark as well. Schumann keeps his tongue firmly in his cheek, allowing the tenor a bit of sardonic humour and the piano a grand finish

36:47 – Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen (One bright summer morning) A beautifully simple song – though now the mood of sadness is taking hold with greater certainty. Again we have a longer piano postlude, the pianist reflecting the text through music and trying to console.

39:38 – Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet (I wept in my dream) Schumann’s use of silence here is striking and altogether ominous. Prégardien gathers the power of the final verse, the texture sparse as can be, until the music stops abruptly.

42:25 – Allnächtlich im Traume (Nightly in my dreams) An elusive song – another dream but one the poet cannot really remember – which possibly explains why Schumann leaves the music sounding half-finished at the end.

43:54 – Aus alten Märchen winkt es (A white hand beckons) There is greater optimism in this song, using the upper register of the piano for the first time in a while, but once again Heine insists on an ending that takes away the potential for happiness. Schumann’s music rescues this in the postlude however!

46:39 – Die alten, bösen Lieder (The bad old songs) A bit of nostalgia to finish – though this is a purge, the poet casting all his ‘bad and bitter dreams’ away in a heavy coffin. Schumann responds with gallows humour, a song that is bold and defiant in its execution but which fades away to reflection. Once again we have a piano postlude, this one even more meaningful as it tries to draw the cycle to a soft conclusion. In the right performance however, like this one, a level of bitterness remains.

Encore

53:05 – SchumannMit Myrthen und Rosen (With myrtle and roses) (the last song from Liederkreis, Op.24) This has an effortless, upward curve to the melody. Prégardien’s gestures to the audience here were beautifully observed.

Further listening

With Christoph Prégardien demonstrating his almost unparalleled abilities in Schubert, here is a Spotify link to a recent recording of him singing the great Schubert song cycle Winterreise. Again this is music on the dark side, but is greatly inspired at that. Texts can be found http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/assemble_texts.html?SongCycleId=47″>here and the playlist is here

For more concerts click here