We are incredibly lucky to have the Oxford Lieder Festival as part of our cultural landscape. The opportunity to hear world class singers and pianists performing together in our intimate concert venues is unique and something that we must continue to cherish. Benjamin Appl may be a performer at the beginning of his international career but he is one of the most important exponents of German Lieder in the world today and is probably the name to watch in his generation.
The Holywell Music Room is the perfect setting to encounter this sort of repertoire. It has a fantastic acoustic for male voices, allowing the detail of the words to emerge clearly as well as providing a great space for the voice to inhabit. And so it proved for Appl and his accompanist Sholto Kynoch. Together they had constructed a wonderful programme drawn from the works of three composers. The first half was devoted to the works of Schubert loosely based around the theme of Spring. As a setter of German poetry, Schubert is pretty much without equal. There is a sensitivity and lucidity to his settings that were perfectly captured by Appl's elegant voice. He is constantly alive to the text and colours each word and phrase with extraordinary finesse. He is not afraid to take risks and frequently explores new ways to present each song in a way that you would not have encountered before.
His voice has a fantastic freedom - particularly at the top of his range - and this gives him a great palette with which to paint each song. He was perfectly matched by Kynoch who was completely in touch with the sensitivity of Appl's approach and provided wonderfully alert sets of accompaniment. The highlight of the first half was a tender rendering of Ganymed. There was a joy and playfulness to the interpretation that held me completely. Overall, it was a fantastic opportunity to hear familiar and new lieder performed with great skill.
The second half was a showcase for songs by Wolf and Grieg. Most of these settings were completely new to me and have immediately sent me scurrying to hear other interpretations - though it is hard to imagine better! Appl opened with Der Tambour which afforded him ample opportunity to show the more robust side to his voice. Indeed the second half showcased just how big an instrument he possesses and gave us a glimpse as to how he will develop as he grows into his voice. His characterisation of this opening song produced gasps of delight from the packed audience who were charmed by his humour and dramatic skill as well as his voice. It was the Grieg settings that rounded off a wonderful evening of song. The greatest joys of the night were the performances of Laur Der Welt and Die Werschwiegene Nachtigall. Appl was at his seductive best, weaving together voice and words to charm the audience entirely.
It was a supremely successful recital performed with great humility and insight by both singer and pianist. It had many moments to treasure - and it is rare to have experienced something so enchanting.
We must treasure such opportunities as a cultural community. If you love good music but have never attended an evening of song like this, I do urge you to give it a try. It is something you will not forget.