Schubert: Winterreise

Steve Davislim (tenor); Anthony Romaniuk (piano) (Melba Hybrid SACD MR 301119)

21 November 2009 3 stars

WinterreiseThis is a handsome CD, playing a shade under 80 minutes, with an integrated booklet running to 54 pages – excellent notes on the work by Richard Stokes, full texts (with the Stokes translations) and credits. It is an all-Australian production, as the record label name suggests, produced in SACD and hybrid surround sound format with the help of the Australian government, the Melba Foundation and the Ian Potter Foundation. The recorded sound is open and generous, not too closely miked, and cranked up to real-life volume on my five speaker system, the voice and piano sound glorious. Both the artists are Australians whose careers have progressed abroad: in the case of Steve Davislim, at the Zurich Opera and then largely in Europe; in the case of Anthony Romaniuk, predominantly in the USA. So much, so promising: nobody picking up or purchasing this CD would feel that they had acquired a dud. And both are clearly serious artists, showing real promise.

But then we come to the work itself, arguably the greatest and most challenging song cycle of all. It is a bleak journey of course, with the bare minimum in many of the accompaniments, and the challenges to singer and pianist alike are legendary. Sing it absolutely straight, and you wonder if you are doing the work justice. Add expression, and emphasis, and you wonder if the work really needs it. That is the endless fascination of Winterreise and the challenge it poses – how to 'capture' the essence of 24 songs that pose riddles at every turn. Is the protagonist an ironic, detached commentator who cares no more, or a passionate and angry young man whose outbursts have to express raw emotion? Discuss.

The opening song, 'Gute Nacht', gives us a clue as to the approach these young performers decide to take. The accompaniment emphasises the sforzandi and the steady tramp in the left hand gives way to hesitations, tiny interruptions in the line: this is going to be an expressive performance. Davislim then does exactly the same with the voice, sacrificing the pure legato line to punctuate certain words: 'gar von – Eh' and 'Nun – ist die Welt'. His dark tenor sound is emphasised by his decision to drop an octave at the end of the first two stanzas, on 'in Schnee' and '-des Tritt'. It is lovely singing and the two performers are in tune with each other, but on repeated hearings it may become slightly mannered. Fischer-Dieskau it most certainly is not!

'Die Wetterfahne' is a bit cautious for my liking: it is a fiendishly difficult song to pull off, but the rubati in this performance are excessive and the sweep of the song is lost. 'Gefror'ne Tranen' is much better: the pulse is steadier and the build-up to the final 'ganzen Winters Eis' works well. 'Erstarrung' offers a nice contrast between the nobility of the soaring lines in the opening stanzas and the dark, dramatic interjections in the middle section. It also works because the tempo is brisk (it is marked ziemlich schnell) and the rubati are fewer and much more discreet. And so to the favourite song of many, 'Der Lindenbaum'. Davislim sings it with touching sensitivity, does not make too much of the agitated middle passage and ends on a note of quiet reflection that perfectly encapsulates the thought of finding peace under a beloved lime tree. This song shows the two performers at their best.

'Wasserflut' is marked langsam but it is played too slowly here for my liking: the tiny hesitations in the accompaniment disrupt the flow and although the tone colour and expression produced by Davislim is lovely, the overall effect is lost. 'Auf dem Fluss' is more successful tempo-wise, but it is a matter of taste whether or not you should apply quite so much vocal 'character' to the stanzas of the opening section: Davislim shows that he can do it (and I would love to hear him in opera), but the narrative maybe doesn't need quite that amount of dynamic contrast.

'Rückblick' displays a lovely contrast between the outer, urgent narrative passages and the lyricism of 'Wie anders hast Du mich empfangen'. And so the journey goes on in similar vein, right up to the final and most enigmatic song of all, 'Der Leiermann', always a test of singer and pianist alike. To my mind Davislim and Romaniuk catch the essence of this quite well. They adopt the 'less is more' approach and it works: there is no attempt to colour the accompaniment or to pull it around, rather to play it absolutely straight and to let Schubert's version of bleakness speak for itself. It makes for a satisfying ending to the cycle.

Die Winterreise is of course a Mount Everest for the performer – there are always passages that you wish you might have performed a different way, always new avenues to explore in this familiar territory. There are also large numbers of classic performances available on CD – from Fischer-Dieskau and Hans Hotter in the bass baritone settings, to Peter Pears (with Britten as accompanist) to Ian Bostridge to a very recent version with Mark Padmore. Does this CD stand up to the very best? Well, I have to say no, there are too many slight misjudgements, too many quirks in the tempo and melodic flow of the piece as a whole to make me want to rank it with the classic performances. But as a single performance I enjoyed it hugely, and it made me eager to hear both performers again, on record or in the concert hall: there is real quality in much of what they do. Davislim breathes well, sustains an often beautiful sound and his German timbre is excellent – those years at the Zurich opera house show. So I am happy to give it three stars and who knows – if they look at the work again in ten years, they might nail it!

By Mike Reynolds