Mathis Rochat on freedom of transcription

The Franco-Swiss violist talks about the freedom and innovation he unlocked by transcribing for his own instrument.

Let’s be honest, the viola repertoire is small. So small, in fact, that in the life of a violist, one cannot be content to play again and again the only existing works written for viola. Finding hidden gems by unknown or forgotten composers can be a fun treasure hunt for viola nerds like me, but most of these lucky finds have already been found.

When I recorded my everything first album I was presented with a choice: record the great viola standards I had worked on during my studies or take a different path, try to create something of my own. I had such respect for the standard compositions for viola that I chose to let them rest and mature over time, to bring them out later in my career, and chose the second option; transcribe works written for other instruments.

With this decision, I was suddenly faced with the challenge of not only being a performer, but also an arranger and a creator. What freedom did I have the right to give myself as a transcriptionist? Have I been allowed to take the liberty of changing some things that the composer himself wrote to better suit the viola? Could I allow myself the freedom to incorporate my own interpretation into the new transcription?

I found myself balancing on the thin line between respecting the text but at the same time not being afraid to innovate. When transcribing, my attention and concentration vary depending on the type and instrumentation of the music. A song with lyrics like daisies by Rachmaninoff cannot be separated from his text, so I know that my attention will be particularly focused on the slurs, the articulation of the left hand and the right hand. I feel less concerned with changing a key signature, since these have historically been flexible in order to accommodate the timbres of different singers.

In the case of sonatas like Rachmaninoff’s cello sonata, however, changing the key signature is absolutely prohibited because piano and cello scores have been designed in a specific key to best suit the instrument. The fluency of the piano score would suffer considerably in some passages if altered. Notating up or down an octave (but staying in the same key) in the viola/cello score is important and often musically justifiable when applied correctly. Of course, the elegance of such interventions is sometimes subjective, and one should be prepared to face some criticism in this regard.

Understanding how the physical characteristics of the instrument support sound production in the lower and upper registers is essential for digging into cello repertoire. In the Rachmaninoff cello sonata (especially in passages in the middle register) the larger size of the cello, its thicker and longer strings will help sustain the sound over longer melodic lines. When I start working on these melodic lines on the viola, I have to take into consideration that the middle register of the cello is equal to the low register of the viola and that the color and intensity of the sound will be noticeably different. I should widen my vibrato to compensate for the change in timbre and satisfy the expressive expectations of the composer. However, this inevitable change in timbre also comes with its blessings: while cellists can struggle to get through the thick piano part in some passages, I found that the register I had chosen, as well than the natural brilliance of the viola sound, helped me shine through with less force and facilitated the natural lyricism.

It is undeniable that the hundreds of instrumental transcriptions of Rachmaninoff vocalize op. 34, which range from theremin to tuba, have greatly contributed to its rise in popularity. Would the composer himself have appreciated such manipulation of his work? With all the pros and cons one can find arguing for and against transcription, I think it’s important to keep in mind that our mission as classical musicians will always be to spread and share the incredible legacy of classical music and to reach as many souls as possible. .

Mathis Rochetthe new album of, Stories of Rachmaninoff with pianist Erdem Mısırlıoğlu, out this month on physical CD. You can find out more here.

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