Benjamin Appl and Joseph Middleton – Schumann Recital at Howard Assembly Room

Benjamin Appl was the last private student of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and the influence of perhaps the greatest singer of the twentieth century is audible in the student. Of all the vocal soloists Leeds has recently hosted—and we have had some very great ones lately—Appl has perhaps the greatest sensitivity for the sonority of the word in music, and communicates a vision of the art of the Lied as a unity of poetry and music. This is greatly to be praised. Joseph Middleton—pianist for the evening, and the director of Leeds Lieder—graces Leeds’ fortunate stages regularly. His accompaniments are always sensitive, supportive, and mellifluous, and tonight was no exception. The duo walk onto the stage—with great expectation on my part, and with warm reception from the audience.

As the first notes of Beethoven’s song cycle An die ferne Geliebte fell upon the audience with a wonderful lilt and faultless clarity, I concluded—after years of internal debate—that one does not in fact need to be fat in order to be a very fine classical singer. Indeed, with his pompadour and skinny suit and tie, Benjamin Appl would look as at home with an electric guitar as beside the piano. And throughout the night, Appl’s performance was distinguished by a beautiful transparency of word, both in English and German. Perhaps this was assisted by the skills of the composers in their use of texture and the conjunction of note and word (Beethoven in particular shows a great sensitivity to the words of his songs). Or perhaps the relatively dry acoustic of Howard Assembly Room played some role in this (the difference between it and, say, the Clothworkers Concert Hall is like night and day). But all the same, such fine articulation cannot be but praised. With such a sonorous clarity, even my plateaued-at-intermediate German could make sense of most of the songs.

What ought also to be mentioned is the sense of drama which Middleton and Appl brought to the texts. The classical song is really a dialogue between the piano and voice, and both Middleton and Appl responded to their parts—and conveyed them with—a language of gesture which enhanced the communication of the sometimes obscure subjects. So often, non-German audiences stand to miss much of the sense of the songs they hear (although, in a good performance, the specific emotion is always clear), but on this occasion—and especially with the assistance of programmes bearing both the German lyrics and a translation—there seemed no such risk. Indeed, between songs, rather than the usual noise of coughing, was the sound instead of people turning the pages of the programmes—which signalled a very engaged, lively, and responsive audience. This was probably also owing in no small part to the manner of Appl’s communication with the audience, with whom he managed to maintain a quite astounding degree of eye contact, which drew people into the texts without distracting them from the music.

And it was hard not to be engaged through at least the first half, which had more variety, consisting of Beethoven, Ivor Gurney, a contemporary composition from 2015 by Marian Ingoldsby, and some of Grieg’s German songs. The second half, given over to Schumann’s Dichterliebe, did not grip me as much as the first. Nevertheless, the audience seemed to remain rapt throughout, and it was perhaps my own personal difficulties (not dislikes) with Schumann that diminished my engagement here, and drew my focus towards the discomfort of my chair, which, by the middle of the second hour, was quite egregious. But this was perhaps my fault for not stretching my legs in the interval.

The Gurney and the modern composition were given in a very fine English for which Appl humbly apologised. This was utterly unnecessary, since, as said above, his clarity and articulation were beyond reproach. Yet his humility, along with his overall gentlemanly charisma, won the audience over entirely. I might add at this stage that Appl was afflicted with a frog in the throat for a fair part of the performance, and after he made it through one particularly and evidently taxing song towards the start of the second half, concluded it with a spluttering (albeit suppressed) cough, whereupon the audience applauded him for his fighting spirit. I was sure that a joke about Theresa May would follow, but apparently it was too obvious, or not obvious enough.

Perhaps it was owing to his throat-frog that Appl’s dynamic range seemed to go from only a pianissimo to a mezzo-piano for much of the evening. This was mostly exquisite—and far better than the other way round: we all know the horror of the shrill, warbling soprano, and I would generally like to encourage quiet rather than loud music as a universal habit. But here his clarity occasionally suffered when the piano part took on a thicker texture or a louder dynamic, at which points, the words of the poem would be somewhat drowned out.

But this is quibbling. The performance was indeed very great and a highlight of the musical season, perhaps only bested by the Schubert duets concert given by Middleton with Nika Goric and James Newby in October. Appl is perhaps the greater singer, but Schubert is vastly Schumann’s superior. To end the evening, Middleton and Appl chose Britten’s arrangement of the folk song ‘The Sally Gardens’ – a perfect conclusion.

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Charles Eager

Charles Eager

Charles writes on classical music and opera.  He is co-author of Synkronos,  published in September 2017.

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