The Brighton Festival was once a go-to place for classical music. Now it’s not, having succumbed to populism and a policy of handing over artistic control to a differently street-cred person every year – the 2017 incumbent being the rap poet Kate Tempest, whose devotion to the great composers isn’t obvious.
But her season did have a song recital at Brighton’s Theatre Royal by two of the most promising young performers on the British circuit: baritone Benjamin Appl (who won the newcomer category in last year’s Gramophone Awards) and pianist James Baillieu (who wins everything going). Neither of them happens to be British-born: Appl is German and Baillieu South African. But that they both live in Britain gave a certain edge to their programme, which was built around the Germanic notion of Heimat: a small word with a potency beyond its English equivalent, “home”.
Heimat entails not just a sense of place but of identity, experience, the longing for a perfect life. And Appl’s choice of songs to illustrate this theme was personal: the first half German (Schubert, Brahms, Strauss) and the second mostly English (Britten, Warlock, Vaughan Williams). It was like saying to the audience: this is the journey of my life so far. And Appl said it with an easy eloquence, a finely nuanced handling of both languages, with wonderful support from Baillieu – who was very much an equal partner here.
The only problem was the auditorium: the Theatre Royal has no resonance, and Appl dealt with that perversely, singing in a half-voice when he needed to work harder to project. Not long ago he took this Heimat programme into the recording studio. I’ve not heard the result but would imagine it sounds better.
From the up-and-coming to the well established: the conductor George Vass has just celebrated his 60th birthday, and he marked it with a concert at St John’s Smith Square that summed up a career devoted to the cause of modern British music. There was Britten, Tippett and examples of the lyrically inclined new pieces Vass commissions for his annual festival at Presteigne: an exquisite mini-cycle of orchestral songs by David Matthews, and a triple concerto by James Francis Brown that was too obviously a love letter to Michael Tippett, but nonetheless a virtuosic score I’d happily hear again given the chance.
That chances for this kind of new but tuneful music don’t come often is a reason to be grateful for George Vass. He doesn’t do the urban grit that gets attention: what he stands for wouldn’t feature on Kate Tempest’s wish-lists. But it has integrity and it gives pleasure. There are worse things.
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