Yesterday evening I crossed the border from Brighton into the Labour stronghold of Hove (actually), All Saints Church to be precise. The purpose of my mission was to attend a recital of songs by German baritone Benjamin Appl accompanied at the piano by James Baillieu. This was my fourth Brighton Festival event in as many days, but the shows I have attended have been very different so I have no regrets about booking this particular sequence.
This recital was performed in the nave of All Saints Church in a sideways configuration so the musicians were on one side rather than at the end towards the altar. I have never been to this venue before but it’s quite a regular one for musical events. I suppose they use this arrangement for the more intimate kind of music-making, such as the singing of Lieder, so the performers can be as close as possible to the audience.
The programme consisted of songs either from or inspired by Eastern Europe. The concert began with three fairly well known songs by Franz Liszt based on poems by Heinrich Heine but then continued with six Heine settings by Anton Rubinstein (his Op. 32) which I’d never heard before. These songs are direct and uncluttered and I found them rather charming. The first half closed with The Biblical Songs by Antonín Dvořák, his Opus 99. Based on extracts from the Book of Psalms these very touching works were written when the composer heard his father was gravely ill.
After a short interval and a quick glass of overpriced Pinot Grigio, we continued with Six Songs Op. 90 by Robert Schumann, who also provided the finale with his intensely moving Requiem which was written later but subsequently added to the Opus 90 collection. In between these works by Schumann we heard a selection of songs from Terezin (German name Theresienstadt) the site of a concentration camp. These pieces are much lighter than the art songs surrounding them in the programme, but are invested with a deep sense of tragedy by the circumstances in which they were composed and also performed. The song Wiegala, for example, is a lullabye written by Ilse Weber, a Jewish lady who worked for some time as a nurse in Terezin. She sang it for countless children destined for the gas chambers, and when the time came for her and her son to be murdered she sang it for him too as they walked together to their deaths.
As an aside here I thought I would plug a CD of music from Terezin I bought a while ago that features Anne Sofie von Otter singing some of the heartbreaking songs written by the inhabitants of Terezin. It’s highly recommended, though I have to admit I find it hard to listen to it without bursting into tears.
What struck me most about this recital is that the greatest Lieder are often very simple and often very brief. Some of the greatest songs by, for example, Schubert areas simple that only a genius could have written them
I think it’s the focus that gives each its power and the variety within each collection means there’s always something to hold the listener even in a long programme. Yesterday I complained about the limitations of a programme featuring only one voice, yet this one also featured only one voice but was an unqualified success. The difference, I think, is that these songs were meant to be performed the way we heard them last night…
I really enjoyed this concert. Benjamin Appl has a wonderful baritone voice, and very few vocal mannerisms or affectations. He just lets the music do its stuff. It was an amazingly mature performance for such a young man.I shouldn’t forget the flawless accompaniment provided by James Baillieu either.
Apparently Benjamin Appl was the last private pupil of the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. That provides me with an excuse to include this version of the song Morgen! (Tomorrow!) Opus 27(4) by Richard Strauss, which was performed last night as an upbeat encore to an evening of intensely emotional music.
Und morgen wird die Sonne wieder scheinen
und auf dem Wege, den ich gehen werde,
wird uns, die Glücklichen sie wieder einen
inmitten dieser sonnenatmenden Erde…
und zu dem Strand, dem weiten, wogenblauen,
werden wir still und langsam niedersteigen,
stumm werden wir uns in die Augen schauen,
und auf uns sinkt des Glückes stumme Schweigen..
The first line translates as “And tomorrow the Sun will shine again…” Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing it: