Recently we’ve been in a busy patch of dual purpose sessions – working with the Nimbus label for commercial release, but you will also be able to hear the works that we record on BBC Radio 3.

Raphael Wallfisch is once again our soloist and we are joined on the podium by conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy.

Now, dear reader, I have been in a bit of a grump, as one of the works we will record is the cello transcription of Bartók’s great (if slightly unfinished) swan song, his viola concerto. Initially this galled my little bratsche-loving soul.

I’ve been giving the matter serious thought while preparing my dinner this evening. The question of transcriptions is a controversial issue, and one that people often have very strong opinions about. Instrumentalists can be very territorial about their repertoire, but to be precious about the Bartók being performed on cello, I would have to do a lot of glossing over the sheer volume of repertoire violists have, shall we say borrowed, from other instruments.

Works such as Bach’s Cello Suites, his Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, and of course, his wonderful viola da gamba works are all very established in the viola repertoire.

Moving through the canon, there are transcriptions for viola of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, the Elgar Cello Concerto, and the Franck Violin Sonata to name but a few famous examples.

It isn’t just violists either. I’ve heard bassists perform Flight of the Bumblebee, and far too frequently for my liking, members of the brass fraternity playing Bach suites.

Is there any such thing as a work too sacred to be transcribed? If it is a sacrilege for a violist to perform a work intended for a violin, is it equally as horrible to hear, for example, the Goldberg Variations played by string trio? Should all cellists and violas give up playing the Arpeggione?

I think, for me, the real question must be: is the crux of the composer’s musical intention still realised in spite of the change in instrument (and therefore timbre)? Technique should always be the servant of the music and so, if a transcription is simply a vehicle for a soloist’s virtuosity, I feel that a crucial element of the composer’s original creation is lost.

To that end, and I hate to admit this, the Bartók Viola Concerto sounds pretty cool on the cello. The opening solo (which I always think sounds like a contradiction - yearning to be joined, yet wanting to soar above everything), loses none of its purity and fluidity. The religious nobility of the second movement is still there, and the slightly manic, unhinged, folksy rush of the last movement loses none of its vigour.

This is a transcription that works, and works well. Although I’d just like to remind everybody that it will always be our concerto.

I’d love to hear from our audience on this subject. What makes a good transcription? Are there any works you feel it would be an outrage to perform on a different instrument? Conversely, are there any works you think would be better served by an instrument other than that the composer originally intended? 

For more information on the National Orchestra of Wales’ concerts, including their season at Swansea’s Grand Theatre, call the orchestra’s audience line on 0800 052 1812 or visit

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