Currently a BBC New Generation Artist, baritone Benjamin Appl makes his Champs Hill debut with a disc of Lieder by Grieg, Rubenstein, Schubert, Felix & Fanny Mendelssohn and Schumann. All composers set words by Heinrich Heine, one of the most contraversial literary figures of the last 200 years, whose texts still have surprising relevance today. Benjamin Appl says: “Many of the songs recorded here have become familiar to me over a long period: I programmed Schumann’s Dichterliebe for my very first recital in 2006, unaware of its challenges and rather reckless of me, in retrospect. From the very beginning its musical and poetic language drove me and absorbed me. At the other extreme other songs, such as the lovely op 32 by Anton Rubinstein I discovered much more recently.” Benjamin Appl was greatly influenced by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who mentored and taught him as his last private student until his death in May 2012. An accomplished performer in opera and beyond, he is an established recitalist, performing in Carnegie Hall and the Wigmore Hall, where he was named as an ‘emerging artist’ in 2015. Described by The Daily Telegraph as ‘in a class of his own’ James Baillieu is a prize-winner of the Wigmore Hall and Das Lied International Song Competitions, and the Kathleen Ferrier and Richard Tauber Competitions. He was selected for representation by Young Classical Artists Trust (YCAT) in 2010 and in 2012 received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship and a Geoffrey Parsons Memorial Trust Award.
Heinrich Heine’s position in the pantheon of great Romantic poets continues to be hotly debated in academic circles. Yet the emotional intensity and captivating imagery of his early lyric poetry provided an irresistible springboard for the creative imagination of innumerable 19th-century composers. At a time when revolutionary fever was sweeping across Europe and new scientific breakthroughs were objectivising romanticised notions of how the world functioned, Heine captured the sensation of being in love with rare acuity. In his finest stanzas, the idealised rapture of the previous generation is exchanged for a tantalising sense of loss as the poet attempts to distance himself from the bittersweet emotions he is expressing.
Earliest of the lieder composers featured in this collection is Franz Schubert. His sole settings of Heine (who was also born in 1797) date from the last year of his tragically short life. Aged just 31 and wracked by syphilis, Schubert spent the September of 1828 putting the finishing touches to his last three piano sonatas, the String Quintet and a series of sublime song settings of Ludwig Rellstab, Johann Seidl and Heine, published posthumously in 1829 by Tobias Haslinger as Schwanengesang (‘Swan Song’).
In his recently completed song-cycle Winterreise (‘Winter Journey’) Schubert had imparted to the German lied an emotional gravitas and cohesion previously reserved for the symphony, sonata and string quartet. In his final Heine settings, with little more than a month of life remaining, the creative imperative drove him to a new level as he explored twilight worlds in which poet and composer become virtually indivisible. Franz Grillparzer, who had written the profoundly moving oration for Beethoven’s funeral the previous year, captured perfectly the sense of greater promise unfulfilled with a poignant engraving on Schubert’s memorial stone: ‘Music has here entombed a rich treasure, but even fairer hopes.’
The ominous sense of foreboding unleashed by Der Atlas (‘Atlas’) reflects the feelings of a man whose eternal state of wretchedness bears down on him as though he was carrying the world on his shoulders. The half-whispered introspection of Ihr Bild (‘Her Likeness’) captures unerringly the poet’s numbed sense of disbelief at losing his true love as he stares at her portrait. This is mirrored by Die Stadt (‘The Town’), the place where the singer lost his beloved and towards which he is now returning by boat shrouded in fog, suggested by eerily unsettling diminished-seventh piano harmonies. In Am Meer (’By the Sea’) we share intoxicated yearnings so powerful that the poet is convinced he has been poisoned by the taste of his beloved’s tears. A sense of haunted desolation hangs over Der Doppelgänger (‘The Double’), as the singer imagines he sees his exact double standing pale and distraught in front of a lost love’s former dwelling.
Of the generation that followed Schubert, the most innately gifted was Felix Mendelssohn. By his mid-teens he was already composing masterworks of startling originality and Romantic sensibility, most notably his String Octet and Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet away from being an idolised musical celebrity he remained a devoted family man and sustained an especially close relationship with his older sister Fanny, herself a former musical prodigy. Of the 24 songs published as Felix’s Opp.8 and 9, six are by Fanny – at the time female composers were barely taken seriously at all. Her premature death in May 1847 left Felix utterly inconsolable. Following a series of three strokes in a fortnight, he himself passed away in the November, aged 38.
Published in 1833 in conjunction with his first set of solo piano Lieder ohne Worte (‘Songs without Words’), Mendelssohn’s six songs Op.19 feature two magical Heine settings, Neue Liebe (‘New Love’) and Gruss (‘Greeting’), which encapsulate the dream-like, fairy-tale world that he habitually retreated into as a musical comfort zone. Most famous of his songs is Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (‘On the Wings of Song’), to a Heine text published just ten years before in the poet’s highly influential Buch der Lieder (1827).
Although a highly gifted composer in her own right, Fanny’s upper middle-class status dictated that her main aim in life (as her father sternly reminded her) was to become ‘a good housewife’. So deeply entrenched were opinions regarding the female role in society at the time that even the devoted Felix struggled to accept the idea of his sister becoming a published composer under her own name. Nevertheless in 1846, at the height of her creative powers – tragically, she suffered a fatal stroke the following year, aged just 41 – she broke the mould and went into print with six lieder as her official Op.1.
Although Fanny didn’t much care for Heine as a person (he had been a frequent visitor to the Mendelssohn household during childhood), she greatly admired his poetry. In both Schwanenlied (‘Swan’s Song’) and Warum sind den die Rosen so blass? (‘Why are the Roses so Pale?’) one can discern the gentle influence of her younger brother, yet the music’s profoundly Romantic impulse is more redolent of the man destined to take the art song to a whole new level: Robert Schumann.
Schumann was one of music’s supreme fantasists. Ideas occurred to him at such a pace that he barely had time to get them down on manuscript. Like a man possessed, during just four months in 1840 he composed over 150 songs of supreme quality, including Dichterliebe, both Liederkreis collections, Myrthen and Frauenliebe und –Leben. On one particular day he captured no fewer than 27 pages of divine lyrical inspiration. Little wonder he excitedly informed his new bride Clara (née Wieck) of his ‘divine happiness’ while composing for the voice.
The vital catalyst for Dichterliebe (and the Op.24 Liederkreis) was Heine’s exquisite poetry, which inspired no fewer than 41 settings by Schumann. Heine’s unrivalled ability to express the tantalising ecstasy of falling in love matched Schumann’s elated sense of wellbeing to perfection. Dichterliebe (‘A Poet’s Love’) sets 16 poems from Heine’s groundbreaking Buch der Lieder, and although the mood is predominately optimistic, gently reflective or dream-like (occasionally in the face of Heine’s deeply ironic shadings), there are also songs of resignation and desolation in which Schumann reveals his private fears and anxieties regarding his own relationship with Clara.
The inseparability of verse and music is established immediately by the magical opening bars of Im wundershönen Monat Mai (‘In the Wonderful Month of May’), which suspend time in a series of arching and sighing arpeggio figurations. The ending, held over an unresolved dominant seventh chord, matches perfectly Heine’s questioning ‘Will my love find fulfilment and rest?’. From here on we are hurtled along on the tide of Schumann’s surging inspiration with an imperativeness that fully reflects the white-heat at which the cycle was composed – a number of settings were completed in just a few hours. The closing piano postlude (a Schumann creative trademark) resolves the grief-stricken final poem in music that appears to float free of musical gravity.
Also included here are two further creative miracles from Schumann’s exultant ‘year of song’. Du bist wie eine Blume (‘You are Like a Flower’) is one of three Heine settings that appeared in the 26-song collection Myrthen (‘Myrtles’), dedicated to Clara with devoted affection (myrtles are typically used to make bridal wreaths). By contrast, Belsazar (‘Belshazzar’) is one of Schumann’s few standalone ballad settings, scored originally for bass and piano. Brimming over with ideas – Schumann indicates that the song should start slowly, then get gradually faster – the helter-skelter pacing of Heine’s original is matched by a setting of insatiable forward momentum.
Schumann’s music provided a vital source of inspiration for nationalist composers, no more so than in Russia, which during the mid-19th century became a hotbed of artistic creativity. One of the most notable musical figures to emerge at this time was Anton Rubinstein, who by the time he founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862 aged just 33, was already a highly respected pianist, conductor and composer.
A former piano prodigy (as was his younger brother Nikolay, who founded the Moscow Conservatory in 1866), following his 1841 debut in Paris, Anton won the admiration and support of several important figures, including Liszt, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Schumann. It was following the latter’s untimely death in 1856 that Rubinstein composed two sets of six songs to German texts Opp.32 and 33, the first devoted exclusively to Heine. Beautifully crafted and lucidly written, the haunting final song of Op.32 Des Asra (‘The Asran’), which tells of an encounter between a princess and boy slave, became highly popular following Liszt’s inspired solo piano transcription of 1880.
Rubinstein was just one of several composers who helped put Russian music on the map, but in Norway one figure emerged above all others: Edvard Grieg. An exquisite miniaturist and distinctive harmonic colourist, Grieg’s more than 180 songs reveal a composer with seemingly inexhaustible melodic flair, typified by Gruss (‘Greeting’), the opening song of his set of six Op.48 (completed in 1888), which exchanges the contemplatory tone of Mendelssohn’s Op.19 setting for unguarded outdoor exuberance.