A quarter of a century ago Symphony Hall opened with Simon Rattle conducting the CBSO in Stravinsky's complete Firebird ballet. For the anniversary we had to make do with just the Suite the composer concocted in 1945, complete with all his copyright-safeguarding padding. It was good to be reminded of how gobsmacked we had been by the stealthy tread of double-basses over bass drum all those years ago (we must never take this miraculous acoustic for granted) in the score's brooding, atmospheric opening, and once again we relished eloquent solos from CBSO principals (though none from that Rattle era) over sumptuously-cushioned strings. After a rip-roaring Infernal Dance the Final Hymn had insufficient weight, and a fleet excerpt from Elgar's Wand of Youth could not really assuage the impression that this well-intentioned (if short-measure and strangely intervalless) celebration of Symphony Hall's joyous opening never really took off. Christopher Morley BENJAMIN APPL Birmingham Town Hall ????? HHHHH The European Concert Hall Organisation was right on the button when it selected Benjamin Appl as one of this season's "Rising Stars". This young baritone has certainly shot into the firmament since I first heard him at Gloucester Music Club 18 months ago, and shows many characteristics of his great mentor, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, whose last student he was: the same honeyed upper tones, the same compelling physical involvement, but as yet none of the gruffness lower down with which Fischer-Dieskau could shade his delivery. The choice is there for Appl to make. Much of this recital's repertoire was classic German Lieder, with selections from Schubert and Schumann, paramount among which was the latter's ultimately chilling Dichterliebe song-cycle. Here Appl projected all the psychological collapse of Heine's texts convincingly, his tone cutting smoothly through this natural acoustic, and colouring his words to telling effect. He brought a grippingly narrative flow to this tale of emotional disintegration, aided by pictorial accompaniments from pianist Gary Matthewman, each vignette subtly tinted, and with more resourceful pedalling than I have heard from many a collaborator.
This sense of fluent continuity also welded the various Schubert offerings into an entity, Appl's body-language embracing the listener into the experience, chillingly so in the famous Der Wanderer. But we also heard a contemporary work, Nico Muhly's The Last Letter, commissioned for Appl, and with four of its five songs setting letters between soldiers and their loved ones during the First World War (the final one is a setting of a desolate Schiller poem). Both probing and absorbing, this is a song-cycle worthy of repeated hearing, and Appl and Matthewman revealed all its inner poignancy. It's just a shame that there was such a pitifully small Town Hall audience to witness this triumphant recital. Appl is already climbing the ladder to international stardom, and there should have been more here to be able in future to say of his latest climb up a rung, "I was there". Christopher Morley