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Superbly Cogent

A new recording of
Schubert's 'Winterreise' -
reviewed by

'... Steve Davislim and Anthony Romaniuk have earned a place among the highest achievers ...'

Schubert: Winterreise. © 2008 Melba Recordings

Without further ado let me say Steve Davislim's account of Schubert's grippingly abject Winterreise cycle is a deeply-felt, superbly cogent performance; a credit to tenor, pianist, and Melba's recording team. Whether one would select it as first choice for this music is another matter. Legendary performers of the greater 20th century (1933-1999) recorded Winterreise in their droves.

Quintessential 20th century lieder singer, German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (born 1925) made Schubert's landmark work his own, recording it at least seven times -- his accompanists: Gerald Moore (EMI Great Recordings of the Century, 1955), Gerald Moore (EMI Classics, 1962), Jorg Demus (DGG, 1966), Gerald Moore (EMI Classics, 1972), Alfred Brendel (TDK, 1979 and Philips, 1985), Daniel Barenboim (DGG, 1980) and Murray Perahia (Sony, 1993) -- the first age thirty and with Perahia, at 68.

Other singers and their pianists (in no particular order) are Thomas Hampson and Wolfgang Sawallisch (Angel/EMI, 1997), Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten (Decca Legends, 1963), Hermann Prey and Irwin Gage (Aura Classics, 1978), Thomas Quasthoff and Charles Spencer (RCA, 1998), Lotte Lehmann and Paul Ulanowsky (Pearl, 1941/2), Matthias Goerne and Graham Johnson (Hyperion, 1997) and with Alfred Brendel live at Wigmore (Decca, 2004), Olaf Bär and Geoffrey Parsons (discontinued); Ian Bostridge and Leif Ove Andsnes (EMI Classics, 2004), Hans Hotter with Gerald Moore (EMI GROC) and with Michael Raucheisen (Music & Arts; America and Classica d'Oro), Brigitte Fassbaender and Aribert Reimann (EMI Classics, 2004), Christoph Prégardien and Andreas Staier (Elektra/Wea, 1998), Gerhard Hüsch and Hanns Udo Müller (Pearl), Ian Partridge and Richard Burnett -- fortepiano (Amon Ra, 2005), Peter Anders and Günther Weissenborn (Gebhardt, 2000), Peter Schreier and András Schiff (London/Decca, 2004) and also with Sviatoslav Richter (Philips, 1985).

For a staggering, exhaustive list of Winterreise recordings visit The Schubert Institute (UK).

A choice proves dizzying and entirely subjective -- several of the above are so irresistible that narrowing the list down may call for a shot of Alka Seltzer. For what it's worth, recordings I'd prefer not to be without are bass-baritone Hans Hotter with Moore, soprano and artist Lotte Lehmann and Paul Ulanowsky, bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff and Charles Spencer and baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (with Moore, 1962 and with Brendel, 1979).

I'll steer well clear of a 2008 Winterreise CD with tenor, wind quintet and accordion on the Atma classique label. The culprits are the Montreal-based quintet, Pentaèdre, with Joseph Petric, accordion, and tenor Christoph Prégardien. This arrangement is (I kid you not!) by Normand Forget.

So what of Melba's lieder duo, tenor Davislim and accompanist Romaniuk?

They set out 'with considered determination' on the bleak 'winter journey' and 'Gute Nacht' the first of Wilhelm Müller's twenty four sombre poems ('I came here a stranger, As a stranger I depart ... Now the world is so gloomy, The road shrouded in snow') is delivered as if anticipating the rigours and heartache that lie ahead.

Davislim's forward placed, closely-focused voice is immersed in a larger than usual resonance; thus unflinchingly exposed.

Listen -- Schubert: Der Lindenbaum
(track 5, 0:00-1:30) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Listen to the care with which Romaniuk leads into 'Der Lindenbaum', presaging a partnership of uncommon musicianship. This surpassing Schubertian setting, and its recollection of happier days, is enchantingly accomplished.

Again and again poet Müller recalls a brighter past, yet his solitary wayfarer trudges onward, assailed by winter storms.

Melba's duo battle through 'Der Stürmische Morgen' ('My heart sees its own likeness, Painted on the sky -- it's nothing but winter, Winter cold and wild !') in a show of palpable defiance. With the following song 'Tauschung', Davislim and Romaniuk reign in their reading quite superbly as the protagonist passes a warmly lit roadside home.

Turning to a few highlight songs -- 'Frühlingstraum', 'Die Post', 'Die Nebensonnen' and 'Der Leiermann' -- we discover the strengths of this performance maintained from start to finish.

Listen -- Schubert: Frühlingstraum
(track 11, 0:01-0:58) © 2008 Melba Recordings

Note how unerringly this duo conveys the alternate emotional states in 'Frühlingstraum'; from Romaniuk's limpid introduction and Davislim's dreamy '... green meadows and happy bird calls' (verse 1) to 'ravens [screaming] from the roof ' (verse 2). The calm recollections in verse 3 and the recapitulation contrasts -- verses 4 and 5 -- lead to a memorably serene account of the final verse.

Similarly there's wistful yearning in the ebb of 'Die Post' skillfully measured against its ringing post-horn flow.

Tenor and piano tackle the demanding self-searching lyric of the surreal penultimate poem, 'Die Nebensonnen', almost as an overt funeral dirge. And finally in 'Der Leiermann' the duo brings appropriate desolation to the organ-grinder imagery:

No one cares to listen,
No one looks at him,
And the dogs snarl
Around the old man'.

[translation from the Melba CD booklet, © 2005 Richard Stokes]

Listen -- Schubert: Der Leiermann
(track 24, 2:51-4:04) © 2008 Melba Recordings

In this music I prefer a darker baritone voice but a great many listeners have other, equally valid preferences.

Avid lieder-lovers will want a judicious selection of Winterreise recordings depending on their purse. I've yet to hear an informed adverse word about Fischer-Dieskau (EMI 653 763 559:CD, 1962).

For an outstanding soprano version you're not likely to improve on, choose Brigitte Fassbaender and Aribert Reimann (EMI: CDC7 49846-2:CD; EMI Encore: CDE 5 749 89 2: CD, 1988).

And for fortepiano accompaniments there's bass-baritone Michael Schopper and Andreas Staier (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, D77055, 1988 ) or tenor Ian Partridge and Richard Burnett (Amon ra CD-SAR 41 -- Saydisc Records, South Gloucestershire, England).

Now Australia has entered the running.

Whether you're driven by Oz patriotism or by purely musical motives with this up-to-the-minute Winterreise recording, Steve Davislim and Anthony Romaniuk have earned a place among the highest achievers in Schubert's finest lied creation.

Copyright © 5 March 2009 Howard Smith, Masterton, New Zealand




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