'Is it sacrilege?' Amsterdam's Ragazze Quartet bring their take on Schubert’s Winterreise to the St Magnus Festival
“Of course, there are people who say: how dare you touch Winterreise?” That’s Rebecca Wise, cellist in the Amsterdam-based Ragazze Quartet, talking about the foursome’s highly regarded arrangement of Schubert’s iconic song cycle for baritone and string quartet. Scottish audiences will get a chance to hear it, sung by Dutch baritone Maarten Koningsberger, when it comes to St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney on 17 June, as part of the St Magnus International Festival.
It’s hardly surprising, perhaps, that the Ragazzes’ rethink of the piece came in for pushback. For those who know and love Winterreise in its original voice-and-piano version, it’s a profound, deeply personal work, conveyed in music that stares unflinchingly at love, loss and mortality.
Is it sacrilege to make a quartet version? For some, maybe. But just wait until you’ve heard it. The Ragazzes stay faithful to Schubert’s original, but the strings inevitably open up new sonic possibilities. “The colouring is one thing,” says Wise, “because there are four of us, and every voice has its own tonal character. In the famous final song, for instance, we can do much more than a piano to make the accompaniment sound like a hurdy-gurdy, which is what Schubert is portraying.” There are challenges, too, however. “If the singer is performing with piano, of course the pianist only has one brain. But we’re four people, each with their own brain, and each with the own opinion on how to interpret the music and the timing. So we’ve had to work on being like one player.”
The arrangement has a fascinating genesis. It was originally conceived for the Ragazzes’ own festival in Amersfoort in the Netherlands. “My mother is a violinist, and she knew the composer Wim ten Have who had made arrangements for her own quartet – he’s someone very close to our family. So I just rang him up and asked if he’d be interested in doing it. I think he must be 91 or 92 now, but he immediately said he’d love to.”
The Ragazzes’ Winterreise nicely encapsulates a theme behind several of the festival’s 2023 events: arrangements. Elsewhere, for example, crack accordionists Ryan Corbett and Djordje Gajic play their breathtaking two-accordion arrangement of Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka (one of several accordion events that run through the festival), and Meeuwsen returns for a solo recital featuring Busoni’s piano arrangements of Bach chorale preludes. “Speaking as a composer myself, you might say: well, that’s not what I wrote,” festival director Alasdair Nicolson says of the concept of arrangements. “But there’s always been a need to arrange music, either for practical reasons, or even to add another dimension to it.”
Nicolson’s own chamber arrangements of two pieces by Ravel – Le tombeau de Couperin and the Mother Goose Suite – feature in a concert from the Hebrides Ensemble on 19 June. “A lot of Ravel’s music already exists in piano and orchestral versions,” Nicolson explains, “and it was a Covid project for me to rethink these pieces for a smaller group. They still have the intimacy of the piano version, but some of the scale and sound of the orchestral version. And I think it shows the quality and strength of the music that it can survive in these different versions.”
These unusual rethinks are just one strand of St Magnus’s particularly rich programme this year. Elsewhere, Black Isle-born cellist Findlay Spence tours the Orkney achipelago with a solo programme including a new commission from Scottish composer (and childhood friend) Pàdruig Morrison, and Nicolson unleashes music, poetry and visual art in a promenade performance that takes over St Magnus Cathedral to celebrate the summer solstice. Nicolson’s visiting national company for 2023 is Scottish Ballet, who bring their dance production of A Streetcar Named Desire. “They’ll be building a theatre within the Pickaquoy Centre,” Nicolson explains. “It’s been quite a challenge logistically: before we could even confirm things, it was a case of making sure we could accommodate them with enough beds on the islands.”
The St Magnus International Festival runs from 16-23 June, see www.stmagnusfestival.com