Kirker Music Festival on Lake Como 2018 Review: Benjamin Appl Sings a Celestial Liederabend in Arcadian Italy.

By Jonathan Sutherland

Lago di Como is said to be the most beautiful place in Italy, which is a very big call indeed.

Since Pliny the Younger, Lake Como has attracted discerning aristocrats, poets, politicians and potentates, artists and arrivistes, cultivated voyageurs and celebrity votaries. Stendhal and Mark Twain, George IV’s unwelcome wife Queen Caroline, Sir Winston Churchill, Gianni Versace, numerous Rockefellers, Richard Branson and of course George Clooney were all enamored of this jewel in the Italian lake district. Even the finicky Franz Liszt was not oblivious to the charms of Cernobbio or Bellagio.

A Unique Talent

In such a salubrious setting, a Liederabend by young German baritone Benjamin Appl was as delectable as strangozzi con tartufo bianco. Not only is he considered one of today’s foremost interpreters of German art songs, Appl could be mistaken for a Giorgio Armani model. Perfetto becomes perfettissimo.

The private concert was part of a very English week-long event called “The Kirker Music Festival on Lake Como,” which attracted a small audience of British music buffs with a penchant for pasta and pannacotta. Hosted by the ebullient Barry Cheeseman in the Hotel Imperiale in Moltrasio, this was in every sense an intimate serata musicale which afforded the opportunity to experience Appl’s artistry at very close quarters.

The programme reflected the inspiration Italy provided for much romantic German literature, especially in the poems of avid Italophile Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Appl and his accomplished accompanist James Ballieu presented an original selection of music by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn and the far too neglected Hugo Wolf, whose “Italienisches liederbuch” has the most explicit connection with bella Italia.

First Course – Schubert

Appl leapt into Schubert’s “Der Musensohn” with bouncy gusto and no small degree of boyish charm while Ballieu captured the ziemlich lebhaft 6/8 rhythms with crisp quaver articulation. The change to the tonic minor on “ich kann sie kaum erwarten” brought a subtle change in the young baritone’s vocal color and the emphatic G major concluding chord left no doubt as to “Auch endlich wieder aus.”

Appl’s truly beautiful mid-voice timbre was evident in the second version of Schubert’s short “Wandrers Nachtlied,” with some really lustrous pianissimo F naturals on “einen Hauch” and “Walde.”  The fermata on “balde” had gorgeous color with intuitive musicality.

Three songs from Schubert’s not so jolly “Harfenspieler Lieder” followed. With a high tessitura, the maudlin “Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt” displayed Appl’s immaculate diction and impeccable evenness of melodic line. There was sensual crescendo phrasing on “Ja, laßt mich meiner Qual!” with an impressive F-F octave run and refulgent low E naturals. An impassioned fortissimo “Laßt sie mich allein” showed Appl’s ability to produce a hefty forte without losing intonation or colour.  The A minor “Mondschein-ish” piano accompaniment was sensitively played despite the hard-action Yamaha. The melancholy mood continued with “Wer nie sein Brod” and again, Appl’s thoughtful word painting was paramount with a wonderfully modulated crescendo on “Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte” and delicate pianissimo grace notes on “Mächte” and “schuldig.” The dynamic markings from fortissimo to pianississimo were scrupulously observed. The alms-seeking “An die Thüren will ich schleichen” conveyed sly humility with even tempo in the repeated crotchets. Curiously the last three lines of the text were not translated in the programme.

“Meeres stille” is marked sehr langsam, ängstlich and Appl’s exemplary evenness of tone conveyed the silent solitude of the depth of the sea with almost hypnotic allure. There is no record of the sedentary Schubert being anything close to a “Fliegende Holländer,” but the sense of unfathomable stillness which pervades this work is masterful. Appl’s word shading on “Todesstille fürchterlich!” to a low B natural was sepulchral while Ballieu’s sensitive broken pianissimo breve chords completed the subaqueous music-scape.

Perhaps the most familiar of the Schubert songs was “Erlkönig” and the former Regensburger Domspatzen chorister reveled in the spooky narrative. Nimble changes of voice tincture between the father, boy, and kiddy-grabbing fiend made for compelling story-telling. A fortissimo low D natural on “Gewalt” had clarion punch. Ballieu’s ominous forte G minor triplet chords propelled the plot with trenchant inevitability. Regrettably, there was a typo in the programme and the song was called “Erikönig” which happens to mean “different king” in Finnish.

Second Course – Gondoliers

From a crypto “Kindertotenlied”,  the programme moved to la Serenissima with four songs about gondoliers, which unfortunately for the Anglo-audience did not include anything by Gilbert & Sullivan. A late published Schubert song called “Gondelfahrer” has a lilting 6/8 rhythm and Appl sang a wonderfully measured crescendo to top F on “wacht.” Felix Mendelssohn’s “Venezianisches Gondellied” had no less tidal flux, although the B minor tonality was not particularly promising for a happy elopement. Appl lifted the voice to a commanding fortissimo on “O komm jetzt” and there was sensual sonority describing “Die Abendluft weht.” Schumann’s tribute to Venice’s iconic gondoliers in “Zwei Venetianische Lieder” took the form of “Leis’ rudern hier” and “Wenn durch die Piazetta” from his Op. 25 “Myrthen” cycle. Both involved illicit assignations with the presumably nubile “Nanetta” abetted by a benevolent (and undoubtedly well compensated) gondolier.  In the former, Appl excelled in the narrative and the simple G major ritardando scale on repeated “leis’” and “sacht” had seductive charm. The sprightly Piazetta canzone showed the sensitive baritone’s gossamer light timbre with beguiling wit.

Third Course – Wolf

For serious lovers of lieder, a selection of 17 of the 46 songs comprising the “Italienisches Liederbuch” by Hugo Wolf was a real treat. Obviously, those intended for soprano were excluded but several gender-neuter pieces were on the programme. One complaint about Wolf’s songs is that they are quite short, but it is the overall effect of these bijoux ballades which is perhaps more important than individual compositions. That said, there are real treasures to be found in each morsel. The title of the first song, “Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken,” is emblematic of the cycle as a whole. Again, Appl’s exquisite honey timbre came to the fore and lines with mid-voice F sharps on “teuer sein” for example, were ravishing. A delicate rallentando on “Und duftet doch so lieblich, wie ihr wißt” was Wolf singing par excellence. Ballieu’s gentle rippling piano semiquaver accompaniment was languid and ethereal and almost tamed the querulous Yamaha.

“Ihr seid die Allerschönste weit und breit” hyperbolically compares the beloved’s beauty to the cathedrals in Orvieto and Siena or fountains in Viterbo and requires paramount attention to diction. As in all his interpretations, Appl displayed the formidable legacy of his musical mentor Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with exceptional elocution.

The Christos Pantocrator nature of “Gesegnet sei, durch den die Welt entstund” possibly benefitted from Appl’s years as a boy chorister in Regensburg cathedral and there was dramatic differentiation between the stentorian Breit und majestätisch opening “Gesegnet sei”  and the concluding pianissimo E flats on “und deim Angesicht”.

“Sterb’ ich, so hüllt in Blumen meine Glieder” jumps to the second book of Wolf’s Italian songs, but when sung by only one singer, exact continuity is not of vital importance. In the unusual key signature of 12/8 this melancholy slow song of willing self-sacrifice requires absolute evenness of breath and tone control. Although written within a relatively narrow tessitura, there is an exposed high F natural on “deinetwegen” which requires considerable technical skill.  Needless to say, Appl excelled.

It is surprising that Paul Heyse’s text of “Benedeit die sel’ge Mutter” hasn’t been poached by Hallmark for mushy Mother’s Day cards. There is something hymnal about the regular 4/4 crotchet accompaniment before the key change to the tonic minor. Vocally, the contrasting middle section requires almost operatic declamation and the fortissimo top G flat on “Ach” would engender a disapproving scowl from most Muttis. Undoubtedly Appl’s charm would have avoided any further castigation.

The Bavarian baritone’s final selection was “Wenn du mich mit den Augen streifst” which should not be interpreted as Wolf making a veiled reference to Kundry. Despite the pianissimo closing bars, the voice part rises with ever increasing leidenschaft to a fortissimo top G natural on “ausbrechen,” which Appl sang with the clarion cantabile of Rodrigo in “Io morrò, ma lieto in core.” Rarely have a few bars of Wolf sounded like late Verdi.

Perhaps in deference to his conspicuously Anglo audience, Appl ended the splendid soirée with an encore of Sir Henry Bishop’s nostalgic 1823 song “Home like Home,” which was Dame Nellie Melba’s traditional, and frequent, chanson d’adieu. For this brilliant young baritone, farewell performances are surely light years away.


ReviewsStage Reviews