Baritone Appl delivers a vivid, gritty “Winterreise” at Park Avenue Armory

Fri Jan 11, 2019 at 12:51 pm

Benjamin Appl performed Schubert’s “Winterreise” with pianist James Baillieu Thursday night at the Park Avenue Armory. Photo: Da Ping Luo

The word “recital” got a new meaning—or recovered an old one—in baritone Benjamin Appl’s vocally modest but dramatically gripping reading of Schubert’s Winterreise Thursday night at the Park Avenue Armory.

With pianist James Baillieu artfully providing the mis-en-scène, Appl as much acted as sang the dark poetry of Wilhelm Müller, set to volatile, uncanny music by the Viennese master. The performance capped a three-recital series devoted to Schubert, during which this duo also performed the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin and the collection Schwanengesang.

In the intimate 19th-century setting of the Armory’s Board of Officers Room—seating barely over a hundred—one could imagine a Schubertabend with the composer and his friends, as Appl addressed the gathering in a conversational voice devoid of plummy tones or vibrato, but rich in actorly expression. At the same time, the world of Samuel Beckett didn’t seem far off when one contemplated this score’s portrait of despair and alienation, as grittily rendered by Appl and Baillieu.

Dynamics of piano and pianissimo prevailed, punctuated by unpredictable outbursts of anguish or rage, as the singer embodied the fluctuating moods of a man who has given up on life and love. Appl’s vocal tone was in the main open and pleasing, a match for his youthful appearance, but he didn’t shy away from a more acid, cabaret-like delivery when the mood turned ironic, or a hollow sound in the more macabre moments.

There was a warm glow to his lower register, although Schubert’s score didn’t take him there very often. If there was some harshness and forcing in fortissimo, one could attribute it at least partly to the character’s bitter emotion.

Appl’s singing also had the musical virtues of finely turned phrases and legato, traits matched by the playing of pianist Baillieu, who interpreted Schubert’s terse, enigmatic settings with unfailing sensitivity and imagination. He proved a strong and equal partner to the singer, conceptually if not always tonally—one wished he had let his fingers do the pianissimos instead of relying so much on the una corda pedal, which tended to make the instrument sound distant and murky.

Solemnly rounded off at each end by a fade-to-black of the stage lights, the duo’s performance had a lean, unsparing integrity to it, not relaxing the tension even for up-tempo songs like “Die Post” and “Täuschung.”  It aimed for, and achieved, a cumulative emotional effect over its 75-minute span.

With a successful series at a major venue, and the wave of publicity that attended it, this gifted baritone appears headed for bigger things. That will mean bigger halls, which will test his vocal production and acting projection. With his camera-ready looks and preference for a fade-to-black format, the movies might be a serious alternative.

Tenor Ilker Arcayürek and pianist Simon Lepper perform an all-Schubert program at the Armory 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11 and 14.; 212-933-5812.

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