How I fell in love with Schubert’s Winterreise is a special story. The first time that I heard about it, it was in an analysis class when I was 14 years old; the teacher played us the first song of the cycle – Gute Nacht. I was so touched by the incredible affect and emotional power of the song, that I went to the library of the Conservatory to borrow a copy of it straight after the class. I found there a recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and also a curious version of the Schwanengesang (an other cycle of Schubert’s songs), in a triple transcription for viola and piano. I realised that anything was possible to do with such an amazing music, and decided that I will make some day my own version of the Winterreise.
The easy way would have been to just take the voice part of each song and play it on the viola, keeping everything else the same, but nothing would have compensated the loss of the essential poetry. So Benjamin chose to transcribe the song cycle for viola and harp, with reciter. In his version, the reciter declaims a poem before the musicians play the song, so that the narrative and dramatic frames are preserved.
The viola is the ideal instrument to underline the expressiveness of these texts; its low tones, rich mediums and generous and melancholic high notes, making it a human voice on its own, are capable of sublimating the voice’s most profound feelings. The harp’s timbre, light and soft, or penetrating and deep, blends perfectly with the one of the viola. Thanks to its exceptional melodic and harmonic richness, the harp can truly embody nature and turn it into a mirror of the traveller’s soul.
Together, viola and harp walk together along the path of the Wanderer. The melodies Schubert wrote for voice circulates between the protagonists: already during the second song the viola whistles furiously like a weather vane, while the harp takes up the complaint of the man who flees. Singing and accompaniment are no longer simply complementary, they merge, and chant with a single voice the torments of the traveller.
A live recording of this transcription is available on the Les Belles Ecouteuses e-label website with Pauline Haas and Maxime Pacaud. The recording took place in January 2011 at the Paris Conservatory in the Espace Maurice Fleuret.