Technical issues make Appl’s” Winterreise” an interrupted journey

January 27, 2022 at 12:37 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Benjamin Appl performed Schubert’s “Winterreise” in a livestream recital presented Wednesday night by the Celebrity Series.

The first month of the new year has certainly seen challenges with the gradual return to live concerts. While the Omicron variant forced the cancellation of several performances around Boston, the Celebrity Series attempted to weather the surge by shifting all of this month’s live events to a solely virtual platform. On Wednesday, Benjamin Appl made his series debut via a recital, streamed live from Pickman Hall, as part of “Celebrity Series At Home.”

Unfortunately, the German baritone’s performance of Schubert’s Winterreise, marred by technical interruptions in the livestream, only served as a reminder that there is no substitute for live music.

Problems were apparent from the onset as the constant buffering caused whole verses of “Gute Nacht” to go unheard. The simultaneous accompanying chat to Wednesday’s stream revealed that other viewers were experiencing similar problems. And it wasn’t until the end of the recital that the Celebrity Series reported that its technicians were dealing with glitches in Pickman’s internet service.

The performance—no fault of Appl and pianist James Baillieu—was almost unlistenable. Frustrating skips in the stream halted any build of the emotional tension that characterizes Schubert’s song cycle.

When not distorted by technical problems, the performance was exquisite. Appl is swiftly becoming a leading Schubertian (his recording of Winterreise will be released next month on the Alpha label), and his warm, buttery voice proved capable of mining the obsessive inner turmoil of the protagonist’s winter journey. He had an equal partner in Baillieu, whose pearly tone and sensitive musicality revealed the pathos from the few songs that could be heard in full on Wednesday.

“Die Wetterfahne” took on bold urgency as Appl captured the anger of one spurned by a lover’s rejection. “Gefrorne Tränen” glowed in the baritone’s fluent rendition, with his sudden fortes conveying the intensity of an intrusive depressive thought. Those qualities carried over into “Erstarrung,” which Appl sang with a clarion voice while Baillieu’s figures rose and fell in waves.

In “Der Lindenbaum,” Appl sang with inviting warmth, as if caught up in a fond memory. Playing in free-flowing tempo, Baillieu offered gentle flourishes to underscore the song’s subtle transformations in mood. Appl also offered a searching “Wasserflut,” the music lingering tastefully as the cycle’s protagonist gets lost in a moment of despair. “Auf dem Flusse” unfolded gracefully over Baillieu’s sturdy accompaniment. “Rückblick” turned again toward anger, with Appl softening his tone for the momentary reflection that comes at song’s end.

But the buffering problems robbed “Rast” of its pensive world weariness and “Frühlingstraum” of its dreamy elegance. The emotional effects of the cycle’s second half were also lost in a maddening series of interruptions, the music freezing mid verse and jumping ahead in awkward fits. This is not the kind of suffering that Schubert envisioned.

The stream offered some visual consolation at least with blue and red lighting that echoed the emotional essence of each song. Still, the hapless broadcast obliterated any lyrical beauties rendered by Appl and Baillieu, who carried on throughout with poise and professionalism.

The Celebrity Series said that the stream would be corrected for on-demand viewing. One hopes so. Appl and Baillieu deserve better. So, too, does Schubert.


Editor’s Note: The Celebrity Series released the following statement late Thursday:

“We regret that there were connectivity issues during Benjamin Appl and James Baillieu’s performance of Winterreise last night. As we continue to encounter new challenges with technology, our team is striving to capture and present the artistry and spirit of the performance in the best way possible. We will continue working with our partners to ensure continuity of broadcast for future livestream events.”

The stream of the recital will be available on demand through February 1.

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