Music: Mentor helps Appl shine in the New Year

New Year is downtime in the music world, recovering from the seasonal surfeit of Messiahs and Christmas Oratorios. But in the void, small things stand out. And one that did for me was a Wigmore Hall recital by the young German baritone Benjamin Appl, who has been on the London circuit for a while as a BBC New Generation Artist, which has given him some profile on the airwaves. But above all he’s been championed and mentored by the pianist Graham Johnson, who accompanied this Wigmore date – and there’s no better teacher for a song recitalist.

Johnson has incomparable knowledge, wisdom and embracing practical experience. And hearing Appl now, it’s clear that he’s absorbed what he’s been taught.

His Wigmore concert was immaculately done: the voice was beautiful, the artistry impeccable. And it was a well-chosen programme: German repertoire with fascinating songs by Pfizner, a composer little-known in English-speaking territories, except for his chief work, the 1917 opera Palestrina. Appl had the measure of these songs and handled the whole programme with such eloquence it made a fine start to the coming year.

As for the dying embers of the old one, there were two events that stood out: both of them part of the choral festival that happens in December at St John’s Smith Square.

One was a visit by the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedra, which is probably the best semi-pro secular choir in Britain. Conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore, it combines the technical sophistication of an elite ensemble with the human warmth that elite ensembles don’t always deliver. Its speciality of music in unbroken sequences is always thoughtful and compelling. And although I don’t much care for choreography in choral concerts, Ex Cathedra is processional rather than barbershop, using the space to generate antiphonal effects.

I just wish that on this occasion it had stayed still for the atmospheric Ēriks Ešenvalds piece Long Road, which has become a choral standard around Christmas and New Year. Four minutes of mysterious magic, it needs a surrounding stillness. And anyone who doesn’t know it should track down the definitive recording by Stephen Layton – who was also in the Smith Square festival, directing one of his several choirs (Trinity, Cambridge) in a magisterial Bach B Minor Mass with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE).

Enlarged for the occasion, the Trinity Voices made a handsome, solid sound, more like an unusually virtuosic choral society than an Oxbridge chapel choir. And unexpectedly they got the better of the OAE, an otherwise elite professional band that should have set the standard here but didn’t, sounding strangely fallible, unfocused. Weary from a busy end of season, I suppose.