SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews
SCHUBERT: Winterreise – Steve Davislim, tenor/ Anthony Romaniuk, piano – Melba
Published on March 6, 2009
Winterreise is certainly the most harrowing song cycle in the entire literature. It haunted Schubert, whose premiere of the work to his inner circle of friends created nothing but perplexity, so unremittingly excruciating are the tone of these poems, hopeless, hapless, and almost a chronicle of a man losing his very soul. Even the normally cheery voice of the composer (who almost always sang his own songs first) was surprisingly destitute in tone and bleakly menacing in its refusal to allow any break of light into these darkly winter storms, a winter that never ends.
As late as one week before his death the composer was still putting finishing touches on these pieces, so it is quite evident that of all his works we might consider Winterreise to be the most personal. Certainly they solidify the composer’s reputation as a bona fide romantic. There are many versions of this work on the market today, and any lieder singer worth his (and sometimes her) salt must try them. This new one, in spacious surround sound and enclosed in a very fine production package from Melba, has much to offer in certain songs, but overall to me does not match up with the greats of the past. For one thing, it is over 80 minutes long, surely the longest on the market, with most others clocking in at around 69-72 minutes. Listening to this I often had the feeling that Mr. Davislim and Romaniuk were mistaking slowness for effectiveness of presentation; but with Schubert so often the opposite is true. His sense of despair and bleakness does not rely on tempo alone, though that is an important ingredient, but also on a certain consistency of pulse. Though it is true that this is not a cycle that “wanders”, and though the narrator is on a journey, he never gets from point “A” to point “B”, nevertheless there is movement of a psychological type, and the unremittingly slow tempos of all of these pieces lead to a certain stasis where each becomes a statement of individuality instead of a statement of the cycle as a whole. In other words, the integral connectedness of the whole can be lost.
But on the flip side there is the excellent tenor of Mr. Davislim, a full yet rounded voice that seems to have its greatest strength in precisely the middle register that Schubert luxuriates in most of these songs. He has studied the works and feels the intimacy of each, yet also is able to convey the few reversals of temperament when the tone changes to moments of hopefulness (before inevitably turning again to the dark side). But on a more serious note there are some egregious examples of simple misplaced rhythmic errors. One only has to look at number 6, “Wasserflut”, where the singer has a number of triplets pitted against the dotted eighth and sixteenth notes in the piano to see that both performers are playing the triplet rhythm, completely destroying the rhythmic jauntiness that Schubert intended. Just to check myself I listened to both Fischer-Dieskau in his DGG recording with Jorg Demus, and Thomas Hampson’s EMI recording; each one of these gets those rhythms exactly right, so I do not understand what Davislim and Romaniuk were thinking here. There are several other ignored or misinterpreted tempo markings as well. Of course, one could just chalk this up to the vagaries of any one recording and call it picky—but I cannot.
So this is a Winterreise that has much to offer (and I cannot tell you how great the sound is) and is able to offer a unique and interesting point of view, but I do not think it is for everyday use. Hampson, Hotter, F-D, and many more have given us sterling readings that more effectively present us with the bleakness of these poems while keeping things moving, and are more faithful to Schubert’s indications. But oh, that sound!
– Steven Ritter