He may have performed every nook and corner of the songbook and recorded it all for Hyperion, but Graham Johnson hasn’t yet finished with Schubert. The pianist has been lured back to the composer by the youthful, full-toned baritone of Benjamin Appl for a disc that’s packed with out-of-the-way gems plus a few favourites.
Recorded live at Wigmore Hall, the duo’s recital takes a while to pick up steam because Appl struggles to vary his coloration in the first half-dozen songs. ‘Am Bach im Frühling’ (By the stream in spring) is a strong opener, a typically gentle, free-flowing melody that gives way to a startling interlude of quasi-recitative, but by the time we reach ‘Geheimes’ (A secret), four songs in, a hint of repetitiveness detracts from the programme. It’s down to the songs’ order. ‘Das Lied im Grünen’ (Song of the open air) is a buoyant, al fresco setting replete with rocking rhythms and repeated phrases that wouldn’t be out of place in Die schöne Müllerin, but here it is slightly diminished by its positioning.
Variety kicks in with ‘Verklärung’ (Transfiguration), a terrific Gerontius-like setting of a poem by Alexander Pope (in translation) that’s built on a recitative style. Here at last the singer is set free to explore music with scope for dramatic interpretation. It’s almost a misnomer to call this a song, and indeed Appl and Johnson cleverly treat it as an orison before an aria, with a smooth elision into the moribund gloom of ‘An den Tod’ (To Death).
Singer and pianist are an accomplished double act, at ease with each other and splendidly well prepared, not least in the glorious Schiller setting, ‘Der Kampf’ (The battle), in which Johnson’s virtuosity loads on the emotion while Appl adds the ardour. Only the baritone’s unburnished lower register lets him down, as it does at isolated moments elsewhere during the recital.
This is a generous conspectus of Schubert’s output, and as a celebration of the master composer for voice and piano here’s a disc that rewards repeated listening. Johnson’s contribution is revelatory: his discriminating, subtle pianism probes to the core of each song, and his touch and phrasing in, for example, ‘Im Abendrot’ (Sunset glow) are exquisite.
As for Appl, nothing becomes his performance like the leaving of it. In ‘Wiedersehn’ (Reunion), the first of two encores, he negotiates tricky intervals with athletic assurance and catches each passing note with a fielder’s agility; and when, softly, gently, he and Johnson round of the evening with a skipping and impeccable reading of ‘Die Taubenpost’ (Pigeon post). Schubert’s swan song takes flight.
Audience noise is less intrusive than on some releases from this source, and the recording by Jeremy Hayes and Steve Pornoi is as warm and welcoming as Wigmore Hall itself. The booklet includes texts and translations.