Graham Johnson’s innate understanding of the music he plays is always a joy to experience, and, on Thursday evening, the selection of Lieder, mélodies and songs by composers as diverse as Schubert, Debussy and Lennox Berkeley, exploring classical Greek themes, allowed him a broad palette with which to demonstrate his accomplished technique. Although Johnson is always sensitive to his singers, there is never a doubt that the piano plays an equal part in the performance, and so it was is in the elegantly poised Nachspielen of Schubert’s An die Leier or Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, the languorously intense piano writing in Duparc’s Phidylé, the peculiar mixture of lush-yet-skittish that is required from Warlock’s Heraclitus and the minimal accompaniment of Britten’s Sokrates und Alcibiades (a single one-handed counter-melody in the first stanza and few placed chords in the second).
Johnson’s partner for the Grand Tour was the young German lyric baritone Benjamin Appl, who has been making his name as a Lieder singer (he won the Orphées d’Or Prix Fischer-Dieskau for best Lieder singer last year). Appl, sadly, was not on top form on Thursday, and, equally sadly, it was in his performance of the two groups of Schubert Lieder that opened and closed the evening that this showed. His solid tone in the middle of his range was fine, and bloomed well, such that the declamatory heft of Orest auf Tauris , the jolly slow gallop of Der zürnenden Diana, and the lyricism of Atys came across well; and the warmly satisfying note on ‘Ewigkeit’ in Gruppe aus dem Tartarus was lovely. But, somehow, the light and shade of Schubert seemed to tax him on occasion, such that floated, light notes at the top of his range weren’t always on point, the gear shifts into light waltzes (such as that in Lied des Orpheus) weren’t always as seamless as they might be, and there were even (particularly in Freiwilliges Versinken) some problems with intonation.
The French repertoire fared much better, however, possibly because of the more even voice the material needs. Fauré’s Lydia and Duparc’s Phidylé were given warm, intense accounts, and the comic/sinister dance of Debussy’s Le faune contrasted nicely with the whoosh of pianistic breeze that preceded the vocal entry. Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis were originally written for mezzo-soprano, and it was daring of Appl to opt for a singer-gender reversal for La chevelure. He gave an accomplished rendering of the song, but, somehow, the eroticism that is present not only in the words, but in Debussy’s piano writing, didn’t come over with quite the same sinuousness as when its singer is female. Chabrier’s L’île heureuse, however, was full of sunshine and breezy reflected ripples, and Appl delivered the light, almost-formless, vocal line with sensitivity.
The English material also worked well. Butterworth’s Look not in my eyes allowed Appl to apply a fluidly constant tone, and his lyric top notes in the Warlock were perfectly placed. The two numbers by Lennox Berkeley (To Aster and Spring Song) were given their full worth, Appl adding an impressively solid quality to the end of the latter. The consistency across the range that seemed to elude him in some of the Lieder was there in full measure for Britten’s Sokrates und Alcibiades.