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Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Winterreise, D 911 (1827)
Steve Davislim (tenor)
Anthony Romaniuk (piano)
rec. 5-10 November 2007 at Iwaki Auditorium, ABC Southbank, Melbourne
Sung texts with English translations enclosed MELBA MR301119 SACD [79:46]
Malaysian-born Australian tenor Steve Davislim, today in his early fifties, has had an important international operatic career since the 1990s and participated in numerous recordings, but for some reason I’ve heard very little of him through the years. I remember however a DVD recording of Turandot from the Salzburg Festival 2002, where he was an excellent Pong. In Gramophone he has been positively compared to Peter Anders and Fritz Wunderlich, two great tenors from previous generations, who also happened to be eminent Lieder singers. To live up to that judgement he had to be very good indeed, and I looked forward to the present recording of Winterreise with great anticipation. It emanates from November 2007 when he had just turned 40, an age when a tenor should be in the enviable state of still youthful and mature. The opening song from the cycle, Gute Nacht, boded well for the cycle at large. Here was a singer with clear enunciation of the text combined with careful, well-modulated singing, beautiful tone, excellent legato singing and a willingness to find the nuances in the music – not always marked in the score. He also feels the freedom to linger over important phrases without self-indulgent exaggerations. His focus on legato is particularly beneficial in Gute Nacht, which can easily be foursquare and ungainly – even from distinguished Lieder experts, like Hermann Prey.
Davislim also very early shows his textual involvement, expressivity and ability to colour the voice. Again it has to be said that his word-pointing is never exaggerated or idiosyncratic. Modulation is a keyword for his readings. Die Wetterfahne is lively and expressive with well-judged rubati, Gefrorne Tränen sensitive and restrained. His lowest notes may be a little weak but he handles them cleverly. Erstarrung is agitated, eager and tense; Der Lindenbaum beautifully lyrical with beautiful legato, while the third stanza is dark and sorrowful and the fifth – Die kalten Winde … - is intense but still without exaggeration. This is certainly one of the best readings. But step by step he creates a believable portrait of the unfortunate wanderer, filled with pain and anguish but also with the occasional gleam of hope: the first stanza of Frühlingstraum is one instance, the opening of Die Post another. But thereafter the resignation grows and his readings become ever more touching. Der Wegweiser and Das Wirtshaus are deeply moving, interrupted by Mut!, the last recovery of hope. The final two songs always grab you by the throat and here Davislim is at his very best.
Tempos are on average slowish but unobtrusively so. To say that the readings are middle-of-the road is damning with faint praise, since the expression hints at blandness – and bland is definitely what they are not. Normally I prefer a baritone in these songs – just as I prefer a tenor in Die schöne Müllerin – but Steve Davislim’s way with Winterreise is truly admirable. I mentioned Peter Anders earlier, and he recorded the cycle successfully – twice even. But Davislim is more akin to another great Lieder tenor from the olden days, Ernst Haefliger, and this is praise indeed.
He is sensitively accompanied by Anthony Romaniuk, like Davislim a versatile artist with international activities as soloist, accompanist and ensemble musician. He has been involved in premieres of more than 50 works and is also a harpsichordist and organist.
The recording is excellent and the booklet contains, besides the sung texts with translations, a highly interesting essay on Schubert as a singer and pianist and also an analysis of the songs by Richard Stokes, who is also responsible for the translations of the songs.
With far more than two hundred recordings of Winterreise – though all of them are not available at the moment – it is impossible to declare one specific version the supreme winner. I have a mere 45, or thereabouts, and among those I can find superb readings to satisfy the most different tastes. Davislim – Romaniuk may not be more of a frontrunner than any of the others – but is definitely a valuable addition to the group, and one that I will return to with pleasure.