Classical music

German baritone brings his film-star looks and informal lieder style to his Hong Kong debut

Benjamin Appl loves song recitals from the 19th century Romantic period, and has made it his mission to bring them to a wider audience. He has been experimenting with a less staid style and his debut should reflect this

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 20 April, 2018, 6:33pm

Can a swoon-worthy baritone who croons lieder with the suave suggestiveness of Michael Buble make traditional German art songs fashionable again?

Benjamin Appl, who makes his Hong Kong debut on April 23, has made it his mission to revive a type of music rather less than soul-stirring. Indeed, the less generous might think of it with as much excitement as hearing endless tales of someone else’s holiday.

“Even in Germany, lieder recitals are struggling. I have always wondered why people who go and listen to string quartets and chamber orchestras turn away from song recitals,” he says.

Concerts may appeal to a broader audience if they are less staid and traditional, as he has discovered when experimenting with new audiences in Asia.

Appl, who was on his way to perform in Ho Chi Minh City before flying to Hong Kong, was touring extensively in India in February, holding workshops and recitals that included an open air concert in Chennai with a South Indian classical musician singing in the Carnatic tradition.

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“My experience in India and my preparation for Vietnam have really opened my eyes to how we can communicate with an audience in places with no tradition of classical recitals,” he says. The programme can be more spontaneous; people may be free to walk in and out; or the performer may talk to the audience about the music in between pieces.

Appl, who was born in Germany in 1982, was mentored by the legendary Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and his range and control have won him numerous awards, including being named young artist of the year at the 2016 Gramophone Classical Music Awards.

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He has had operatic roles – perhaps a more glamorous and exciting career – but he is focusing on songs written mainly by Romantic period composers such as Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms in the 19th century.

“I have always liked song recitals, and as my first singing teacher told me, singing in a very detailed way in recitals with just a piano means that you are your own conductor, and you make all the choices. When you start from that, it will be easier to then go and perform on big opera stages,” he says.

His film-star looks and expressive delivery make him a great ambassador for new audiences, but more conservative critics have sometimes said he overacts.

Appl says he performs in a way that helps the songs, often based on German poems written hundreds of years ago, appeal to audiences who don’t understand the language.

“The essence of the songs is the emotion, the universal feelings that are present in our times. I want to

express them with voice and colouring so that people don’t have to sit there reading the translations all the time and still get the atmosphere of each song,” he says.

Benjamin Appl will be singing a selection from his 2017 album, Heimat.

Hong Kong City Hall, April 23, 8pm to 10pm. HK$100 to HK$480