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Classic FM talks to Catrin Finch, the former Royal Harpist, about the challenges of re-working one of Bach’s most famous keyboard pieces and balancing music and motherhood.
I’m nervous around harps. They’re so beautiful, so unapproachable and look so fragile that I’m unwilling to start moving them around. But someone will have to as I’m standing with Catrin Finch in the Salvi showroom, which is so stuffed full of harps that there’s nowhere for us to sit.
I look for assistance to the photographer. No, he isn’t touching them either. So it’s left to the former Royal Harpist to manhandle these elegant instruments and create an interview oasis. This she manages with great confidence as only someone can who’s been hanging around the showroom for 20 years.
CLASSIC FM: Is this room a place you know well?
CATRIN FINCH: This is where my parents came when I was 10 years old and had to re-mortgage their house to buy me my first big harp!
CFM: Your inspiration came from seeing Marisa Robles, the Spanish harpist, perform. What age were you?
CF: I was five. Kids could go free to the concert so my parents took me and my siblings along to skimp on the cost of a babysitter. I came away saying, ‘I want to play the harp’. They were sighing, “Oh no.” But in Wales it’s quite a popular thing to do. There was a peripatetic teacher in the next village and it all started from there.
CFM: You stayed at home and studied at the local comprehensive. Was it ever suggested that you should be sent away and hot-housed at a music school?
CF: When I was eight, a Dutch harpist told my mother that the only way forward was to pack me off to a specialist boarding school. My mum was horrified and that was when the acclaimed harpist Elinor Bennett, my now mother-in-law, offered to start teaching me. The catch was that she lived in North Wales and we were two and a half hours away in Aberystwyth. So every fortnight for eight years my parents drove me on this five-hour round-trip for my two-hour lesson. My father’s workplace let him have the afternoon off to take me.
CFM: You’ve just arranged one of Bach’s most celebrated keyboard works, the Goldberg Variations. Why?
CF: I wanted to do something epic, serious, very classical and challenging, and prove to people who didn’t believe that it could be done that it could. It was an old manager of mine that suggested tackling the Goldbergs. Then I got pregnant with my daughter, Ana Gwen, and in the last few months of my pregnancy when I was relaxing at home I had the time to work on it. When I started I didn’t believe that it could all be done – I was sure I’d stumble across a problem – but fantastically it was all possible. It’s the most difficult thing I have ever attempted.
CFM: What were the biggest challenges in preparing the transcription for the recording?
CF: Chromaticisms. We harpists use a pedal system to change the notes the strings play so it’s not as easy to play a lot of chromatics as it is on a keyboard. There was only one variation, the so-called ‘Black Pearl’, No.25, which is very chromatic, but there was a way of getting round it. Otherwise it was just odd variations that presented problems. I started at the beginning and worked my way through. I got to Variation No.5, panicked and nearly stopped there, but you plough on. Variation No.11 was also challenging. On a harpsichord it would have been written for two manuals so it’s all in the same area of the instrument and you’re constantly retracing your steps.
CFM: Pianists talk about the Goldbergs as being a mountain to climb. How scary is it to have to recreate the disc night after night on tour?
CF: It is scary but I’m up for the challenge. It’s long. I’ve never had to play constantly for 70 minutes before so I need to build my stamina. I’ve had a couple of run-throughs and come out drained. It takes a lot from you.
CFM: Childbirth versus Goldbergs?
CF: No, competition. But the piece is such a journey that you get transported with it and it’s over before you know it. You get involved with it.
CFM: World-class female soloists often complain that the life of a touring musician is a man’s life…
CF: I believe there is a way to work around it – I don’t believe that I have to stay at home. I am lucky in that my husband, Hywel, is self-employed so he can juggle things around, and we have grandparents close by.
CFM: And is he content to be a house-husband?
CF: We do things together. We are one team. He’s a sound engineer and our latest project has been to convert a little chapel just outside Cardiff into a studio and concert hall. He’s based there, so we have something that’s bringing in an income meaning we’re not relying on my travelling and concerts. We have help there so if Hywel wants to travel with me then we have someone to look after the venue. If not I will travel by myself.
CFM: You knew Hywel from an early age as he was the son of your harp teacher Elinor Bennett?
CF: I started studying with Hywel’s mum when I was eight and as he’s a little bit older than me he really had nothing to do with me. He was more into rock ’n’ roll than harps. We met again when I was 20 and it all happened. He’s adamant that Ana Gwen won’t be a harpist as he says three generations of harpists in one family is too many!
CFM: For a harpist your profile is quite high. How much of that is down to the Prince of Wales and your appointment as his Official Harpist [2000 to 2004]?
CF: Quite a lot and I am conscious of that. I was able to use it and promote it to the maximum especially in America. It happened at the same time as I won a Young Concert Artists audition in New York, which meant that I was getting bookings in America – over there people are crazy about our Royal Family so I was bringing in crowds of people just because of my position as Royal Harpist. They weren’t that bothered about hearing the harp but thought that I might have some inside information on Camilla or that I was mates with William.
CFM: Does Prince Charles like music?
CF: He’s passionate about it, especially Bach. He often requested Bach and Welsh music, but more than anything he wanted to support me and does to this day. Last May he came to visit our chapel, so he still has an interest in my life and career and he doesn’t have to do that.
CFM: I can’t hear a trace of a Welsh accent in your voice. Was there ever one there?
CF: No. My mother’s German and my father is English but got a job in Aberystwyth. I was born there and speak Welsh fluently but English is my first language. Ana Gwen is yet to say a word so at the moment I stick to English and Hywel talks to her in Welsh. The Welsh language is very important to the Wigley side of the family.
CFM: How do you travel with a harp?
CF: I never take them abroad – travelling is tough enough never mind trying to take a harp with you. It’s expensive, too, so wherever I travel I try and source a harp. I ask that it’s serviced and the newer the better. Sometimes an instrument isn’t great. When I’m touring the UK it’s easy; I just shove my harp in the back of the car. And it is after all only one thing – it’s much easier than being a percussionist!
CFM: You’re 30 next year. Any plans for the future – more kids perhaps?!
CF: Yes, but not just yet. I tour this year with the Goldbergs, then after that I tour with a band from Columbia called Cimarron. They play this music called ‘joropo’ which is very rhythmic. There are about 10 of them and they dance, too – it’s very theatrical. We worked together a few years ago and it was a great success so we are going to try and rekindle the flame. We do some Welsh music in their style and then some of their music with a Welsh feel. Then I want to record some French chamber music, Debussy and Ravel. And John Rutter is writing me a harp concerto – so there’s lots to keep me busy!
Hear her on…
Goldberg Variations Catrin Finch (harp)
Recorded in Catrin’s studio with husband Hywel as sound engineer and Welsh composer Geraint Lewis as producer, this transcription breathes new life into a Bach classic.
DG 477 8097