Benjamin Appl began his career as a chorister in the famous Regensburger Domspatzen before studying in Munich and London and as the last private pupil of the great Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Appl was one of the BBC Young Generation Artists in 2014/2015 and won the Gramophone Young Artist of the Year Award in 2016. His concert reflects a profound immersion in the worlds of Schubert and Schumann, but also includes songs by Grieg and Nico Muhly’s The Last Letter (setting the text from letters soldiers sent to their loved ones during World War I) which was written for Appl in 2015. Pianist James Baillieu has collaborated with a wide range of instrumentalists and singers at venues including Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and Musee du Louvre in Paris. In the 2015/2016 season Baillieu presented an acclaimed 11-concert series at Wigmore Hall in which he performed with singers such as Ailish Tynan, Mark Padmore, and Iestyn Davies.
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Erlkönig (Goethe), D. 328
Am Bach im Frühling (Schober), D. 361
Der Wanderer an den Mond (Seidl), D. 870
Nachtstück (Mayrhofer), D. 672
Prometheus (Goethe), D. 674
Der Musensohn (Goethe), D. 764
EDVARD GRIEG (1842-1907)
Six Songs, Op. 48
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Strophe aus Die Götter Griechenlands (Schiller) D. 677
NICO MUHLY (b. 1981)
The Last Letter
ROBERT SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Dichterliebe (Heine), Op. 48
Described as “the current front-runner in the new generation of Lieder singers” (Gramophone Magazine), Benjamin Appl, Gramophone Award Young Artist of the Year 2016, is celebrated by audiences and critics in recital, concerts, and opera. He was a member of the BBC New Generation Artist scheme from 2014-16, and was also a Wigmore Hall Emerging Artist and ECHO Rising Star for the 2015/2016 season, appearing in recital at major European venues including the Barbican Centre London, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, Wiener Konzerthaus, Philharmonie Paris, and Cologne and the Laeiszhalle Hamburg. He became an exclusive SONY Classical recording artist in May 2016.
He trained as a chorister at the renowned Regensburger Domspatzen and continued his studies at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München and graduated from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, where he now teaches. He had the good fortune to be mentored by one of the greatest singers of the 20th century, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Operatic appearances include Conte Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro in London, Owen Wingrave (title role) at the Banff Festival, Aeneas in Dido and Aeneas at the Aldeburgh and Brighton Festivals, Schaunard in La Bohème with the Munich Radio Orchestra, Baron Tusenbach in Eötvös’s Tri Sestri for the Deutsche Staatsoper, Seele in Mozart’s Grabmusik with the Classical Opera Company, and a new commission for Bregenz Festival (Das Leben am Rande der Milchstraße by Bernhard Gander). Conductors he has worked with include Marin Alsop, Christian Curnyn, Johannes Debus, Edward Gardner, Reinhard Goebel, Michael Hofstetter, Bernard Labadie, Alessandro de Marchi, Paul McCreesh, Roger Norrington, Christoph Poppen, Jordi Savall, and Ulf Schirmer.
In concert he has appeared with the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, Gabrieli Players & Consort, Les Violons du Roy, the Bach Collegium Stuttgart, the Dunedin Consort, and on multiple occasions with the major BBC orchestras. He made his BBC Proms debut in September 2015 singing Brahms’s Triumphlied with Marin Alsop and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and Orff’s Carmina Burana with the BBC Concert. His oratorio repertoire includes Bach’s Magnificat, St. John and St. Matthew Passions, Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem, Händel’s The Messiah, Haydn’s The Creation, and Britten’s War Requiem.
An established recitalist, he has performed at Carnegie Hall, Ravinia, Rheingau, Schleswig Holstein, Edinburgh International, and Oxford Lieder festivals, deSingel Antwerp, Heidelberger Frühling, and with Graham Johnson at the KlavierFestival Ruhr. He is a regular recitalist at Wigmore Hall and at the Schubertiade Hohenems and Schwarzenberg. He works closely with pianists including Graham Johnson, James Baillieu, Malcolm Martineau, Helmut Deutsch, and Martin Stadtfeld.
The coming season will see Benjamin return to work with the Gabrieli Consort in Leipzig, followed by appearances at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, the Oxford Lieder Festival, Leeds Lieder Festival, and Wigmore Hall. Other engagements will include the Christmas Oratorio in Stuttgart, Munich, and Hamburg; the ZDF Advent concert at the Frauenkirche, Dresden with Staatskapelle Dresden under the baton of Christian Thielemann, to be broadcast on national television; recitals at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam and the Musée de Louvre, Paris; concerts with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Festival Strings Lucerne, and the Seattle Symphony and tours of India and Hong Kong.
His discography includes Schumann duets with Ann Murray (DBE), accompanied by Malcolm Martineau; his debut solo disc Stunden, Tage, Ewigkeiten accompanied by James Baillieu, which was released in April 2016 on Champs Hill records; and a live recording of Schubert Lieder with Graham Johnson for the Wigmore Hall Live label. His first solo album of German and English song for Sony Classical, Heimat, was released to great acclaim in March 2017, and won the prestigious Prix Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Best Lieder Singer) at the 2017/2018 Académie du Disque Lyrique Orphées d’Or.
Born in South Africa, James Baillieu studied at the University of Cape Town and the Royal Academy of Music in London with Michael Dussek, Malcolm Martineau, and Kathryn Stott. He was appointed a Hodgson Junior Fellow in 2007, a Professor of Piano Accompaniment in 2011, and awarded an ARAM in 2012.
An accomplished chamber musician, soloist, and accompanist, James collaborates with singers and instrumentalists including Lawrence Power, the Heath Quartet, Mark Padmore, Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Kiri te Kanawa, Pumeza Matshikiza, Allan Clayton, Jacques Imbrailo, Ailish Tynan, and John Mark Ainsley. Venues include Wigmore Hall, Berlin Konzerthaus, Vienna Musikverein, Bridgewater Hall, National Concert Hall Dublin and the Bergen, Spitalfields, Aldeburgh, Cheltenham, Bath, City of London, St Magnus, Norfolk & Norwich, Brighton, Verbier and Aix-en-Provence Festivals. As a soloist he has appeared with the Ulster Orchestra, the English Chamber Orchestra, and at the Petworth Festival with the Wiener Kammersymphonie.
There is no composer of German Lied more lauded than Franz Schubert (1797-1828). A native of Vienna, Austria, Schubert spent much of his tragically-short life in or near the city, which was then, as now, a cultural center of Western Civilization. He received his early musical education from his family who were practitioners and patrons of the art, although they were teachers by profession. Schubert initially intended to follow in this trade and taught at his father’s school for a few years in his later teens. During this same time he began composing in earnest, eventually securing his reputation enough that he was able to leave teaching behind and work in music professionally.
It was during the years of 1814-1816, (later dubbed Schubert’s “years of song” or “miracle years”) that the young composer began to compose Lieder that would cement his reputation as one of the foremost composers of the genre and assure the continuation of the genre itself. Many composers wrote art song which may be considered Lied before Schubert, including Mozart and Beethoven, but it was the great quality and vast quantity (over 600 songs) of Schubert’s vast output that would keep this genre as a living and thriving source of art until today.
One well-recognized example of Schubert’s mastery is in his song “Erlkönig.” Composed in 1815, one of the 140 songs he wrote that year, this piece is a miniature theatrical scene played out aurally. The text is a narrative ballad which was initially published in Goethe’s 1782 singspiel Die Fisherin. A masterpiece in dramatic characterization, five different characters are portrayed by the vocalist and pianist: a narrator, father, his son, his horse, and the Erlking—a figure personifying Death. The human characters and the Erlking are played by the singer, with varying vocal ranges and keys being used to help keep them distinct. The horse’s urgent galloping is portrayed in the accompaniment through unrelenting triplets— something which was difficult for pianists in the fortepianos of Schubert's day and now requires virtuosic technique on modern-day instruments, with their heavier and more complex key action. The only breaks in this texture are supporting the Erlking’s lines when the accompaniment turns to an eerily-cheery waltz pattern. Resolution is only found in a brief recitative at the very end when the father arrives at his destination.
Franz von Schober (1796-1882), one of Schubert’s close friends and roommates for a time, supplied the text for “Am Bach im Frühling” (1816) in addition to many other vocal works, including the well-known “An die Musik.” Extolling the beauties of Spring, the song moves into the parallel minor as the singer describes these pleasures as holding “nothing good” for him. The motion is halted by a serious recitative as the depth of his despair is made known before returning to repeat the initial section in a traditional form.
“Der Wanderer an den Mond” (1826) and “Nachtstück” (1819) contain examples of other themes Schubert frequently set in his Lieder—the night and the wanderer. The text of “Nachtstück” was written by another of Schubert’s friends and roommates, Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836). Mayrhofer continued to be a text source for Schubert who would end up setting over 40 of his poems. This song in particular is a stellar example of Lieder at its best—a meaningful poem made even richer through a masterful song setting.
Schubert returned to the mythological character of “Prometheus” (1819) a number of times in his oeuvre, composing both a symphony and a cantata (now lost) which reference the Greek Titan who is best known for defying Zeus and stealing fire to give to man. In this setting of Goethe’s poem, an anthem to the independence of mankind, Schubert creates a powerful declaration of man’s resilience in his alternatingly powerful and intimate setting, not uncommon in his through-composed narrative Lieder.
“Der Musensohn” (1822), also a text by Goethe, is another allusion to Greek mythology often referenced in Schubert’s song output. The son of the Muses is likely a self-reference to the artist himself—be he poet or composer who amid jubilant exhilaration only references his human yearning in the final stanza.
Like Schubert, Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) also started developing his musical aptitudes at a young age. Trained by his mother who was also a sought-after pianist, Grieg’s precocious talent wasn't recognized until he was 15 when he was sent to study at the Leipzig Conservatory. After four years of study there he returned to his hometown of Bergen and immediately launched himself into the local musical circles. While some of his work was nationalistic in character, most of his 170 songs were firmly rooted in mid-19th century German Romanticism, and aren't particularly Nordic. His Seks Sange, Op. 48 (1889), is a prime example of this, lying squarely within those expectations through his compositional techniques and wide-ranging choice of various German texts (German Romantics such as Goethe and Heine are represented as well as the medieval Minnesänger Walther von der Vogelweide). His Lieder, mostly composed to German texts, are now sung both in German and Norwegian translations.
In the years prior to the composition of this set, Grieg had reached a sort of breaking point in his life—he was successful, secure, and busy as a conductor and composer in Bergen but had become dissatisfied with his compositional output. His relationship with his wife, Nina, was also strained. He decided to leave home and spend half a year abroad on a long concert tour throughout northern Europe. The following year they reconciled and Grieg then proceeded to work on the six songs of this opus.
Seks Sange, Op. 48 are a collection bound together by the common theme of love, and contain some of Grieg’s best-known songs. Although there is no continuing narrative throughout the pieces as in the seminal song cycles written by Schubert and later Schumann, they are carefully crafted and well balanced as a unit. The set opens with the appropriately-titled “Gruß”—a hopeful and light text with a similarly-charming accompaniment that is then followed by the darker and more dramatic “Dereinst, Gedanke mein,” the happy-go-lucky “Lauf der Welt,” and the fondly-reminiscent “Die verschwiegene Nachtigall.” “Zur Rosenzeit,” set to a Goethe text written for the long-forgotten opera Erwin und Elmire is the most lustful and tormented of the set. The throbbing chords in the treble are evocative of a heartbeat in distress while the melody, loosely doubled in the piano bass throughout the song, provides a haunting duet effect for a text centered on love lost. The blissful “Ein Traum” concludes the set, a transcendent apotheosis of love.
The text for Schubert’s “Strophe aus, ‘Die Götter Griechenlands’” (1819) comes from a much longer philosophical poem by German poet Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), a friend and contemporary of Goethe’s. “Die Götter Griechenlands” was very controversial at its publication in 1788 due to a perceived bias in the poem against Christianity in favor of Paganism. Schubert used many of Schiller’s poems as source texts but chose to set only one of the 16 stanzas of this particular work—a moment of yearning for a lost era of youth, innocence, and faith. Schubert’s setting, finished in 1819, is appropriately wistful and mournful, punctuated with moments of hope for its return.
Nico Muhly (b. 1981) is a contemporary American composer, known for his work as a versatile composer in both classical and popular styles. “The Last Letter” (2015) is a set of five songs: four set to the actual texts of letters sent between soldiers of the First World War and their current or past lovers, and the last a setting of the same stanza of Goethe’s “Die Götter Griechenlands” that Schubert set nearly 200 years prior. The set was written specifically for Benjamin Appl who collaborated with Muhly in the initial creative process. With modern textures and evocative accompaniment, the distinct pathos of each letter is well portrayed.
If Schubert lit the torch of Lieder, Robert Schumann (1810-56) was the next to carry it. Raised in Zwickau in Saxony, Schumann showed early mutual interest in music and literature. After his father and sister died in his late teens, Schumann moved to Leipzig to study law for his mother’s sake. However, his heart was not in this subject and he soon was devoting all his time to his two loves of literature and music, and produced many creative endeavors in both fields. While there, he was introduced to his piano teacher’s virtuoso daughter, Clara Wieck, who would become his wife just a decade later. Schubert was forced to give up his dreams of being a pianist after a hand injury exacerbated by use of a hand-strengthening mechanism caused permanent numbness in some fingers. Disappointed but not deterred, Schumann continued his fertile composing and channeled his literary interests into music criticism so effectively that during his lifetime he was much more known as a critic than composer.
Clara’s father was very much against Schumann’s pursuits of his daughter who he wanted to keep free of distraction as a touring piano virtuoso. So much so that he ultimately threatened death to Schumann and disinheritance to his daughter should the pair try to continue to subvert his demands. Finally with the help of a lawyer Schumann literally sued for her hand legally. In spite of her father’s counterattacks on Schumann’s character and his own adeptness at postponing and delaying the case, the court at last granted permission for the couple to wed in 1839.
Following this was one of Schumann’s most prolific years in Lied, so much that he himself dubbed it his “Liederjahr.” Many of his most brilliant works of the genre were written in this time from 1840-41 with an immense output of 138 songs—a genre in which he hitherto hadn’t produced much. Dichterliebe (1840), a cycle of 16 songs taken from Heinrich Heine’s larger Lyrisches Intermezzo (1823), is the outstanding composition from this period. In his poetry, Heine (a critic of the own Romanticism that he himself was a prime example of) speaks of a sorrowful knight whose only joy is in his nocturnal visits from his fairy bride. Ultimately, the knight decides to seal all his sorrow and love in a coffin to be thrown into the sea. Schumann’s choice of excerpts and chosen title for his composition keeps the themes but loses some of this context, leading the listener to see the speaker as a forlorn poet who alludes to his own tragic end.
Schumann characterizes these miniature texts masterfully, frequently couching the songs in sometimes extended piano introductions and postludes which serve to further comment on, advance, and link the narrative. Schumann employs all resources available through his use of his expanded tonal language and dance rhythms to portray the different facets of the tragedy of love lost and the life that follows. The final song of the cycle “Die alten, böse Lieder” is the longest. The poet’s plans to rid himself of pain (and thus all feeling) eventually succumbs back to a gentle piano rhapsody based on the opening theme in which his love was laid bare. Schumann’s expertise of both word and melody is clearly evident as the listener is taking on this emotional journey of despair allayed only by anger, wounded pride, denial, and at the rarest moments, glimmers of hope.
Dallas K Heaton
October 18, 2018