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Artillery Row

Delicate decadence

A tantalising selection of songs


Franz Schubert knew what he was doing when he wrote songs in cycles. It stopped singers from taking them pick-and-mix for recitals that showcased their own gifts rather than the composer’s. The art of creating a voice and piano recital has receded in the present century with very few — Matthias Goerne and Alice Coote spring to mind among recent, coherent exceptions — willing and able to pitch a programme in which the individual songs relate to one another and to a larger idea.

I defy anyone to claim they know every single song in this selection

Welcome, then, this new release by the German baritone Benjamin Appl and his British pianist James Baillieu. The notion of forbidden fruit is taken from the Garden of Eden and applied to our own times in which total permissibility is the norm. A verse from Genesis links the songs and the selection is constantly surprising — from the utterly decadent Reynaldo Hahn to Arnold Schoenberg at the gates of Arcadia. I defy anyone to claim they know every single song in this selection.

Appl is comfortable in three languages and a wide range of emotional expression. Roger Quilter’s Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, an Edwardian drawing room song, sounds like closing time at a Soho gay bar. Schubert’s Little Rose is crushed. Hanns Eisler’s Ballad of the Paragraph is a forgotten gem of Weimar licentiousness and Kurt Weill’s Yukali — closely related to Surabaya Jonny – is the very epitome of impossible love. Baillieu is a full and equal partner in this enterprise. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the piano in Mahler’s Urlicht more delicately, tantalisingly phrased.

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