Melinda Bargreen | 27 APR 2021
One of the best ways to deal with a pandemic is to make a virtue of necessity. With concert halls still relatively unsafe, and transcontinental travel still dicey, Atlanta’s terrific Spivey Hall concert presentations have to be both flexible and imaginative. The most recent example of their inventive work-arounds is the April 25 program by the German baritone Benjamin Appl, whose streamed lieder recital with pianist José Gallardo made a virtue of long-distance necessity.
The program was preceded by a video interview with Appl, conducted by Sam Dixon, Spivey Hall’s executive and artistic director. Standing in the solitary Atlanta hall, Dixon directed some thought-provoking queries to Appl in what the director termed “pre-concert notes.” It was particularly interesting to hear about the venue where the recital was recorded: Konzerthaus Blaibach, an intimate Bavarian hall with 200 metal seats, built in 2014. No audience, this time: it was just Appl and Gallardo, creating their own sonic world in a setting that felt particularly intimate whenever Appl turned to the cameras for some impromptu program notes.
“It’s not the prettiest place in the world — in a forest, on border of Czech Republic,” Appl explained of the venue. “But it’s a very interesting hall with very fine acoustics, a place where people come because of the music, not like other big festivals” (where, he explained, the emphasis often is on “how you dress up, or the dinner afterwards”).
“It’s this modern glass concrete thing in the middle of a Bavarian village, and at first the people hated it. But now they are happy that they have something like that.”
Spivey Hall music lovers have good reason to be happy, too. The recital revealed a singer of expressive depth, a pianist of unfailingly good instincts, and a program that showed their versatility and artistry.
After the recital’s opener – an evocative reading of “Goin’ Home” (adapted from the Largo of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony) — Appl turned to the camera, addressing the video audience for the first of several thoughtful remarks on the music. What is home? “The German concept of Heimat,” Appl observed, is “difficult to translate – it’s a concept about belonging and identity.” Heimat, he explained, has several different aspects: the place we belong to; the people who are dear to us (family, partners, friends); and the experiences with these people in these places.
“What is Heimat for you, very personally?” Appl asked. The first set of music that followed explored several aspects of home: Schubert’s “Seligkeit,” Hugo Wolf’s “Er ist’s,” and Brahms’ “Wiegenlied.”
It was immediately clear why Appl has found such success as a lieder singer. The voice is warm, resonant, flexible, and produced with apparent ease, but most of all, it’s expressive. This is a singer who communicates. His diction is impeccable; you don’t have to glance at the program, because every word is clear.
Gallardo was the ideal keyboard partner: technically flawless, always in the right place at the right time, supportive and flexible, brilliant at bringing many of the songs to a memorable close. His instrument, surprisingly, sounded as if it had been indifferently tuned.
A particularly attractive aspect of the recital was Appl’s spoken commentary between the sets. Most of the sets offered three thematically linked songs – several from Brahms, Strauss and Schubert, but also selections from farther afield (Poulenc, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Henry Rowley Bishop, Peter Warlock, John Ireland, and Edvard Grieg’s “Six German Lieder”). He discussed which songs resonated with his childhood (such as Brahms’ “Wiegenlied”); which songs related to his beloved grandparents; which ones gave him “a lot of hope and a lot of comfort.”
There was poignancy, too, in many of the observations. Before singing Adolf Strauss’ “Ich weiss bestimmt” – so expressive of optimistic love, with no clouds or shadows, and the confidence of being together – Appl revealed that shortly after writing the song, the composer was deported to Auschwitz, where he died in the gas chamber.
Recitalists are human, and there were a few very rare places in the program where Appl might have wanted a do-over: Grieg’s “Gruss” and Britten’s setting of “Greensleeves” lost a little of their focus at the respective endings, and there were a few rare and very small intonation slips in “Ein Traum.” These are minor quibbles in a program that has so much to offer. ■