Schubert: Winterreise

John Miller
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'Winterreise' (Winter's Journey), Schubert's cycle of 24 songs, was composed in 1826, the year of Beethoven's death and but a year before Schubert himself died. The text is by Wilhelm Müller (the author of Schubert's previous song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin), who also died in 1827. Müller was a much better poet than generally credited, and the widely-read Schubert was unerringly attracted by these two cycles. Unlike the Miller's cycle, Winterreise has no consistent thread of action. It begins with a man standing outside the house of his beloved, who has discarded him, and desolated he walks away into the bitter Winter night with neither purpose nor destination, a true Wanderer. In the songs, he encounters locations replete with tender memories of his former beloved, but all are now frozen and buried in snow. He eschews human company, and only a lone crow circles over him. Devoid of companionship and hope, the exhausted, storm-lashed Wanderer gradually looses his mind as he realises that his only hope of an end to suffering is to go to his death. This is the work of Müller as a post-Romantic who no longer believed that the Arts could somehow conjure a happy ending to life.

It was extraordinarily courageous of Schubert to set this harrowing tale of fate and mental degradation to music. He was fully aware of his own plight as a syphilitic, whose final stages would lead to dementia, the loss of his ability to make music and a horrible death. Yet so acute was his response that Winterreise has become the pinnacle of the German Lied, a lasting master-work. There are nearly 500 recorded versions at the moment, and competition is fierce, with baritones, tenors and even female singers contributing. The many styles of interpretation lie between two end members, the narrative (e.g. Hampson/Sawallich) and the penetratingly psychological (e.g. Fisher-Dieskau with Brendel or Periahia, Matthias Goerne/Johnson). Between these lie many other great performances such as Pears/Britten and Prégardien/Staier.

Australian-born tenor Steve Davislim was compared in 2001 to ‘notable predecessors of similar voice as Peter Anders and Fritz Wunderlich’ and moves easily between the opera stage and song recitals. His partner on this disk is Anthony Romaniuk, a graduate of the Manhatten School of Music in 2003, currently studying early music in The Netherlands. The rapport between these artists is immediately apparent; they perform as a duo rather than as singer and accompanist, clearly having studied and prepared this song-cycle with loving care and a deep intellectual understanding of its wonders. Romaniuk's early music training is apparent in his light touch and exemplary articulation on a modern piano, with a period feeling for the subtle rubatos implied in Schubert's careful notation in the score. Both artists are very faithful to this score, not always the case for the ‘psychological’ interpreters who sometimes border on the melodramatic or histrionic. In fact, there are very few fortissimo markings in Winterreise: several brief ones inside hairpin dynamic markings, a couple more for the piano only, and a long passage through latter half of the song ‘Frülingsrauschen’. Most of the songs are marked piano and pianissimo with occasional fortes.

Davislim and Romuniuk take 79:46, at the longer end of the extant recording times but by no means the longest. With their joint intensity and concentration, all the tempi sound perfectly natural. Davislim's phenomenal breath control and ability to float long lines are in full use, as is his gentle word-painting by slight rubato or changes in tone colour. He also gives correct values to the many crush notes with which Schubert adorns his vocal part. Since there is no real action in any of the songs, he gives separate characterful voices to the inner conflicts and internal self-conversations of the hapless Wanderer, and so portrays the gradual degradation of the traveller's mind with a believable sympathy. When we reach 'Die Nebensonne', where the Wanderer imagines himself to be seeing no less than three bright suns, Davislim's raptly radiant tone reflects the glory of this vision, and then the tone is bleached of all emotion as realisation sets in that the warmth is not for this fugitive from the World.

There are too many highlights of this performance to mention in detail; the wonderful voicing of chords in the piano, subtly marking Schubert's changes in their inner notes; Romaniuk's exquisitely shy and gently lilting prelude to the 'Spring's Dream', and the bone-chilling weariness of the Wanderer as he sizes up the Hurdy-Gurdy man at the end of the cycle, half-knowing in his mind that the nab is a fellow outcast, and half-realising that he also is Death.

There is little to say about the recording because it is so apt. It was set down between 5-10th Nov 2007 in the Iwaki Auditorium, Melbourne, which seems to have a fine acoustic for lieder. Davislim uses the resonance intelligently, singing out into it at emotional moments or addressing himself more intimately directly towards the microphones, The surround speakers help place the listener at an ideal distance from the performers, and the piano is perfectly balanced behind the singer, supportive, illuminating and never overwhelming. The effect is of an intimate personal communication between the performers themselves and the listener. Davislim's excellent articulation and good German (with nicely rolled 'r's) make the songs easy to follow.

Melba's production is of a high standard and worthy of the performance. The digipak is darkly toned with the leaden colour of winter storm clouds, and punctuated with snow scene photos. There is an outstanding essay on the origin of Winterreise by Richard Stokes in the attached hard-backed booklet notes, repeated in French and German, and the English and German texts are reproduced in a good translation and (at last!) an easily readable print size. The whole fits neatly into a transparent sleeve.

I found this a spell-binding and compulsive performance, forming a moving narrative which reflects the scale of emotions expected in Biedermeyer Vienna of the 1820s, and not the Vienna of Freud and Schönberg. No doubt Davislim will record Winterreise again later in his career, but this one is already worthy to be counted amongst the best. Romaniuk's interpretation of the piano part is sometimes more perceptive and beautiful than even Brendel's and Sawallisch's. This youthful Winterreise is a substantial addition to Melba's growing catalogue of SACDs, and for sound, this one is so far probably the best of all.

***** 5 stars Performance
***** 5 stars Sonics