Steve Davislim is one of Melbourne’s most illustrious vocal exports and his all too infrequent local performances are not to be missed. Unfortunately, his recital of Schubert’s iconic song cycle Die Winterreise was not widely publicised and this resulted in the South Melbourne Town Hall audience not being as large as such a musical feast for the ears and the soul deserved.
Along with seating being placed close to the stage, however, this may have added to the intimacy of the occasion. Certainly, Davislim’s welcoming remarks and his introduction to Schubert’s work gave a very personal dimension to the concert and created a salon ambiance of sharing music among friends. The fact that the venue is the Australian National Academy of Music’s home base, where his accompanist Timothy Young is Head of Piano, accentuated this atmosphere.
Of the many outstanding concerts I have heard at ANAM, Davislim’s performance of Die Winterreise in an arrangement for small orchestra and tenor by Hans Zender would have to rate among the most memorable. At one point, Davislim was so transfixed by what the young musicians were playing that he momentarily forgot to enter. Although he was not undone by the emotional nature of these 24 songs, first performed as Schubert and his friends contemplated his certain imminent death, Davislim’s involvement in this performance was total.
Based in Vienna for many years, his understanding of the German language and his experience of singing this song cycle (he came to Melbourne from a performance of same at the Adelaide Festival) give him an insight into the text and the way the words can be coloured for maximum expressiveness. He also has the technical command and versatility to convey the changing moods between and within each song convincingly. His smooth, velvety tenor had the hall ringing with the dramatic climaxes of raw emotion. From the edgy, defiance of Gute Nacht, that begins the trudging grave-ward journey, to the despair and anguish of Der Greise Kopf and the final hypnotic pull of the organ-grinder all songs were realized with unflagging focussed energy and nuanced detail. Less overtly anguished songs such as Der Lindenbaum were invested with a tender, nostalgic lyricism. Davislim’s voice possesses a distinctively poignant quality and appears incapable of making anything less than a basically beautiful sound, no matter how convincingly tortured or harsh the timbre.
Timothy Young made an admirable partner, sensitive to Schubert’s intentions and Davislim’s expressive interpretation. Some audience members remarked on the way Davislim’s voice seemed to emerge organically from the piano part, so much at one were they. Anybody who believes that the piano lid should be raised at anything less than full stick for a recital only needs to hear Timothy Young in action. He is master of the subtle, light touch without sacrificing depth of tone.
After this strenuous winter’s journey in summer heat, an encore would have seemed like a bad idea. After all, what more is there to be said at the end of Schubert’s masterpiece? But a prolonged standing ovation encouraged Davislim to choose one of the very few possibilities – and one of his favourites: Strauss’s Allerseelen. Sung superbly, it made a tremendously moving ending to a concert about pain, death and the grave. The notion that once a year the soul can be set free suggested that the journey was not quite as tragically final as it had seemed.
Steve Davislim and Timothy Young gave this recital at South Melbourne Town Hall on March 18, 2017.