Schubert: Winterreise

Henry Fogel
Fanfare (US)

Steve Davislim is a young Australian tenor whose impeccable musicality is married to a strong vocal personality and an attractive lyric tenor voice. The result is a superb recording of Schubert’s Winterreise. Although I had reasonably high expectations for this disc, based on a record of Richard Strauss songs that I had heard and reviewed earlier, I didn’t expect it to stand up to its strong competition. There is no point in attempting to name a ‘best’ recording, considering that currently lists 95 recordings of Schubert’s dark cycle! But some of the available tenor recordings are true classics: Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes on EMI give a highly dramatic, even idiosyncratic reading, but one that grips the listener throughout. Jon Vickers has an even more idiosyncratic, and very slow, version that is utterly captivating, once you allow yourself to enter his extraordinarily introspective world. And Peter Schreier made two recordings, one with Richter on Philips that I have not heard, and a lovely one on Decca with Andras Schiff.

That one can even speak of Davislim in the same breath is high praise. He brings a very wide range of dynamics and colours to this music, essential if one is to remain engaged throughout. His phrasing is supple, his tone lovely at all dynamics, and his sense of the inner soul of these songs is as good as anyone’s. This cycle runs the gamut from the poet’s memories of past joy to undiluted despair and darkness, and Davislim conveys it all. The transition of mood and colour from the fifth to the sixth song is immediate and stark: ‘Der Lindenbaum’, with its recollection of dreaming of love under the tree and ‘Wasserflut’, which begins ‘Many a tear from my eyes/Has fallen into the snow;/The cold flakes thirstily drink/My burning anguish.’ Then the hushed beginning of ‘Auf dem Flusse’, with its almost whispered, airless tone catches you and draws you in. The enormous range of colour he finds in ‘Irrlicht’ is the work of a masterful singer. When he sings, in ‘Rast’, ‘Only now as I lie down to rest, do I notice how tired I am,’ the mental and physical exhaustion is tangible for the listener. And so it goes for 80 minutes—a performance of Winterreise that ranks with the finest I have heard.

Pianist Anthony Romaniuk is completely in tune with the singer, and matches his moods thoroughly. He proves the perfect partner; this is chamber music for voice and piano, and is performed that way.

The very helpful, intelligent notes by Richard Stokes are another plus, as is Melba’s extremely natural, warm sound (I listened to it in two-channel stereo). Even to those collectors who have more than one satisfying recording of Winterreise in their library, I can recommend this new one with unreserved enthusiasm.