World renowned harpist Catrin Finch has gained respect not only for her playing but for promoting this undervalued instrument in the classical music world. This concert was to celebrate the release of her new CD Blessing, a collaboration with celebrated composer John Rutter. Finch was joined by Sinfonia Cymru; this orchestra supports young musicians at the start of their careers, and the fourteen string and woodwind players heard tonight were all extremely promising.

Catrin Finch
Catrin Finch

The orchestra opened with “A-Roving”, a movement from Rutter’s Suite for Strings. The famous folk tune was handled well, full of Rutter’s typical spicy harmonies and plenty of suspensions, and it made for a very confident opening from Sinfonia Cymru. They had a unified sound and good balance between parts, playing sensitively under the excellent leadership of violinist Emma Parker.

Catrin Finch’s arrival was met with rapturous applause and she immediately silenced the crowd with a solo harp rendition of the themes from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, arranged by Ekaterina Walter-Kühne. Kühne’s writing here is very clever, with themes seamlessly flowing into one another, and exploited the fact that harp can provide a tune as well as its own accompaniment. A Romantic orchestra condensed into a single instrument didn’t feel thin, with Finch’s tone and complex finger-work making a satisfying performance. Finch was then joined by Sinfonia Cymru in two Rutter choral classics, rearranged for harp, strings and woodwind. The first, A Gaelic Blessing, had beautiful interaction between harp and flute, and the second, The Lord Bless You and Keep You, although wordless in this performance, had the same emotion. Even if one didn’t know where the words “shine” and “peace” come in the original, you could feel them from the playing.

Finch modestly introduced her Celtic Concerto, describing it as her latest “experiment”, which had accidentally made its way onto the CD. The first movement, “JigAJig”, had almost continuous quavers for the strings but some fun interplay with the harp, and the second movement was one of the best things heard all night. Titled “Hiraeth”, this Welsh word means intense longing, which Finch linked to Welsh people always wanting to be in Wales (which I can vouch for personally). This started very small, with minor tonality, and slowly flourished upwards into a sensational, triumphant major resolution; I certainly felt what she was trying to achieve, and her passion translated beautifully. The third movement, “Solstice”, was short and sweet, with unexpected harmonic transitions which miraculously resolved to the tonic, along with extremely virtuosic ripples for the harp. I cannot remember often hearing compositions by the main soloist, but this “experiment” was definitely worthwhile and a refreshing addition to the evening.

Of the three Welsh folk arrangements, Migldi Magldi stood out for its unusual combination of harp and bassoon. Friends Finch and bassoonist Louise Watson laughed about how they finally had the duet they had been waiting years for; the adaptation was extremely humorous, with mischievous imitation and a hyperbolic minor rendition of the funny, chirpy tune. The wild-card piece of the night was BUGS! Mosquito Massacre, which does not feature on the CD but is one of Finch’s previous highlights. Finch hears and kills mosquitoes in the room, all represented by various extended techniques on the harp, and Finch’s acting. She had the audience laughing with her variety of facial expressions, and confidently managed huge runs and harmonics, as well as using hammers, hitting the wood, and bashing the strings with her palm. Although this piece really did show Finch at her best, it did seem rather a blunt choice against the other, subtler works.

After two Rutter lullabies, written for Pegi and Ana Gwen (Finch’s daughters), came the most ambitious work of the night: the six-movement work Suite Lyrique, a rewrite of Suite Antique (1981). Unfortunately, the strings had a tendency to dominate here, with the harp and woodwind occasionally lost. The last section, “Rondeau”, was the best, with a strict five-time pulse, modal harmonies and constant hemiolas and off-beat entries. The encore, “Kentucky Fried Chicken Rag”, ensured the concert ended on a high, with “superb” and “wonderful” echoing round the audience during the final applause.

Finch tonight presented herself not only as a talented soloist but as a composer, actress and warm personality. However, the programming was slightly odd to me; the folk arrangements didn’t match the concert standard style of the rest of the works and the Patterson piece was rather out of place. As for Rutter, his work unfortunately continues to be a cause for disagreement and snobbery in the choral world, but the works heard tonight prove to me that this is an exaggerated trend, and it is worth listening and appreciating them for oneself.

****1