Benjamin Appl / James Baillieu HEIMAT

Anyone who enjoyed Benjamin Appl’s previous disc, a Schubert recital (Wigmore Hall Live, 7/16), will recognise the same qualities on this new album, the first fruit of a newly forged relationship with Sony Classical. The voice has a burnished, oaky beauty as well as considerable sweetness (well captured in Sony’s natural engineering), while the interpretations are suffused with a gentle intelligence, an instinct for unforced but direct communication and what feels like a real love for the repertoire. The latter characteristic is even more in evidence in this project, one which has a disarming personal element: a carefully assembled programme that explores not just the abstract concept of ‘Heimat’ but also the young baritone’s relationship with his two homelands, original and adopted.
It’s a delightful selection, split up further into evocative subheadings, which mixes songs familiar and less well known, the expected with the unexpected. Schubert, Wolf and Brahms dominate the larger, German part of the programme, beautifully performed. But we also have the disarming, twinkling simplicity of Reger’s ‘Des Kindes Gebet’, as well as Adolf Strauss’s suave ‘Ich weiss bestimmt’, presented with a gentle pathos and sophistication that quietly underlines the tragedy of its having been composed in Terezín – here, as throughout, the piano-playing of James Baillieu is superb.
Appl’s move to the UK is announced in a confused whirl with Poulenc’s Hyde Park and then a half a dozen songs in English, with a slightly more folksy tone. You’ll have to go a long way to hear more enchanting accounts of Britten’s ‘Greensleeves’, Ireland’s ‘If there were dreams to sell’ or Bishop’s ‘Home, sweet home’. Appl’s English, unsurprisingly, cannot be faulted. The two Grieg songs that make up the epilogue are outstanding, too. But the final moments of an otherwise near-ideal account of ‘Ein Traum’ highlight one reservation. The voice is very beautiful across a broad range but it remains a great deal happier up to forte than above it, where it loses flexibility and can develop a slightly fuzzy, even woofy quality.
It’s an issue that will hopefully be ironed out as Appl develops. As it is, though, there is more than enough quality in his singing, and pleasure to be had from his musicianship and interpretative instincts, for this charming and often moving disc to be confidently recommended. (Gramophone)

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