Paul ApplebyAs many vocalists know, song recitals present the singer at the most naked. No “concept” to dissolve into—no costumes, no greasepaint, no set, no orchestra. Only the pianist—exposed, translucent—a single partner guides the way. In no other genre of performance are we given as much access to a musician’s authentic self—who they are as a person, what kind of sensibilities they bring to text and music. 

Tenor Paul Appleby’s onstage persona is as American as apple crisp, and he possesses the untroubled confidence of a politician. Think of a cross between Eddie Haskell and Marco Rubio, and you’d have something resembling Paul Appleby.

At times over-scrupulous and pedantic, he has tendency to announce his artistic choices from the stage, offering platitudes as insight during his patter. And while this tendency probably derives from a deep love of the repertoire, it merely reads as tedious.

However, despite such grievances, all is well when the man sings. And in an eclectic program on Wednesday night with Ken Noda at Zankel Hall, Appleby submitted a recital comprised of Lachner, Schumann, Wolf, Berlioz, Villa-Lobos, and a world premier by the young composer Matthew Aucoin with a clean, versatile tenor worthy of much praise and admiration.

Starting with a setting of Lachner’s “Das Fischermädchen,” Appleby quickly followed the lovely song with a performance of Schumann’s Liederkreis (if you’re wondering about the pairing, the poetry of Heinrich Heine unified the set). Appleby sang with a beautiful line, but generally lacked the subtle shading necessary for Schumann’s music; it was only when he reached “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” that the singer extended himself beyond clichéd stock gestures into genuine emotional engagement. “Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen” was, especially, a stunning display of artistry.

In his set of Wolf Songs (“Das Ständchen,” “Heimweh,” “In der Fremde [Wolken, wälderwärts gegangen],” and “Seemanns Abschied”), Appleby’s singing grew more assertive, and consequently more attuned to the text’s concerns. For example, while a performance of “Das Ständchen” might possibly signal a failure of the imagination for someone as youthful as Appleby, his thoughtful singing displayed great maturity and commitment to language.

After the intermission, the program veered into unexpected and unpleasant terrain with the debut of Matthew Aucoin’s Merrill Songs. Solipsistic, muddled, and inattentive, Aucoin’s settings of six poems by James Merrill—“A Downward Look,” “The Kimono,” “Grass,” “Last Words,” “An Upward Look,” and a sonnet from The Changing Light at Sandover—do little to improve on the elegance of Merrill’s original text. What once was, in the American poet’s hands, wise and generous, becomes cold, strident, and bullying through Aucoin’s sonic lens.

Unfortunately, this is not a case of a composer revealing the darker, more difficult undertones of a text’s DNA, but instead, one in which a younger artist superimposes a self-indulgent project onto the genius of a master. Shockingly, Aucoin manages to evacuate the poetry of its musicality and organization—a difficult undertaking with prosody as inherently melodic as Merrill’s!—in the service of his own ambitions. Joined with Aucoin at the piano, Appleby’s voice provided the one saving grace, which, though given few opportunities to bloom, still managed the pointless laboriousness of the composition.

It was a shame that the singer’s only English set had to be Aucoin’s world premiere. His is a voice ideally suited to English song, and it would have been nice to hear the tenor tackle a set by a composer such as Finzi—perhaps “A Young Man’s Exhortation,” or “Till the Earth Outwears”?

In contrast to the Merrill Songs, the three selections from Les nuits d’été sounded gorgeously limpid: understandably, after the Aucoin set, Appleby seemed more comfortable in this standard repertoire. Before beginning, he explained that while the songs may be best known in their orchestral setting, Berlioz first composed Les nuits d’été for piano and voice. And indeed, it was refreshing to hear these mélodies in such an intimate setting, allowing for a more subtle approach.

Rounding out the program, Appleby chose three songs by Villa-Lobos. Here, the tenor sang with a provocative, almost Italianate sound, and displayed the necessary command of saudade required by the Brazilian composer. A highlight was his final “Sambar!” from “Samba classico,” a striking, emotional song with text by the composer himself. Pianist Ken Noda was most compelling here, supporting the tenor with dexterous, ardent playing.

The encores (Britten’s setting of “O Waly, Waly,” and Lensky’s aria from Eugene Onegin) merely confirmed what the audience already knew: Appleby is a sturdy, versatile singer, a tenor who brings considerable talent to the concert stage. That being said, it would be nice if he learned to let his singing speak for itself, instead of feeling the need to explain everything to the audience.  And yet, happily, these irritations are soothed by the splendor of his voice.

Photo: Frances Marshall