A formidable team to tackle Schubert’s Everest of the lieder genre.

Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House

July 27, 2014

Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, 24 songs that plot the lonely hero’s descent into madness, has long been considered the Everest of the lieder genre.

A huge variety of singers have recorded attempts on this peak – expeditions by sopranos, tenors, baritones and even basses – and a fair share of those have ended up in the Himalayan death zone.

The 52-year-old Danish baritone Bo Skovhus is not one of them. He hasn’t even recorded it, despite having triumphs with Schubert’s other great cycles Schwanengesang and Die Schoene Mullerin, but this Utzon Series recital with Sydney-born conductor Simone Young on piano shows that it’s high time he took it into the recording studios.

Skovhus has an actor’s ability to inhabit his material – in this case the Romantic poems by Wilhelm Muller about a wanderer who is fated to be the outsider, seemingly mocked by nature and spurned by humanity.

His voice was soft and supplicating in the lovely The Linden Tree, in whose shadow he dreamed many a sweet dream, switching to urgent and powerful in Flood Water where his tears join the melting ice which floods the town where his sweetheart lives.

In Rest you felt the weariness of life on the “inhospitable road”, shared the agitation as he becomes delusional in Will o’ the Wisp and shivered at the eerie simplicity of the final song in the collection, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man who totters here and there barefoot on the ice and whose plate is always empty.

Integral to the singing and poetry is the piano part and it was a rare treat to see and hear Young away from the rostrum and sitting at the Steinway.

The two opera specialists made for a formidable team with great musical chemistry and this hour of wonderful song, superbly performed, will stay with the audience for a long time.

Next up in the series is a sold-out performance by Scottish violin star Nicola Benedetti with pianist Alexei Grynyuk on Sunday, September 7.

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