Catrin Finch plays
The harpist talks with
MC: How did the idea
of turning the Goldberg Variations into a harp piece
CF: From a suggestion by my former manager,
who knew I was on the lookout for new possibilities
for the instrument. I immediately sensed it would
be an interesting thing to attempt, though I wasn't
sure that it would work.
MC: How did you set about it?
CF: The first thing I did was buy
Glenn Gould's recordings of it, which were
themselves a translation of the work into
a different musical world. Then I bought
some more recordings, and the music. I
didn't analyse it first; I just sat down
and started to play it, as I would any
other piece. I had been a pianist and had
played bits of it, and harp scores look
like piano scores anyway, with two clefs,
one for the left hand and one for the right,
so it was essentially the same score. The
main challenge was to adapt the fingering.
MC: What was the first problem you
CF: Until Variation 5 it was straightforward.
That one is very fast, with the left
hand making big leaps, but when I worked
it out slowly, it proved possible. Most
of the problems were chromatic, to do
with how the harp actually works. We
have seven pedals, one for each note
of the scale, and each has three slots,
so the C pedal will control all the Cs
on the instrument. The most difficult
chromatic variation is the 25th, because
Bach is asking for adjacent notes in
a rapid row, and you have to make the
pedal changes very fast, and sometimes
you have to swap the hands. But whereas
it's sometimes impossible to adapt contemporary
music for the harp, with Bach it is possible.
It took me a year to make the adaptation.
MC: Are you satisfied with it?
CF: Very satisfied indeed, although
there is one variation - number 11 -
which doesn't work as well as I would
like it to. But it is such a nice feeling
to have brought this huge project, the
most difficult I've ever embarked on,
to a successful end.
MC: Why are you not entirely satisfied
with Variation 11?
CF: It's difficult to make it sound
clean because your hands are so close
together, and because, when you pluck
a string on the harp and touch it again
so soon, it makes a buzz. I tried putting
the left hand down an octave, but that
didn't sound right at all - the one thing
I wanted to do is keep faith with the
original. However, though some variations
don't work as well as they do on the
piano, others actually work better.
MC: Which ones?
CF: Variation 7, which is very beautiful,
is perfect for the harp, because you
can make it really ring. And the same
is true of most of the slower variations
- they bring out the best in the instrument.
The ones in minor mode - 15, 21 and 25
- all work nicely because you can really
use the instrument's character.
MC: Wanda Landowska likened Variation
25 to a black pearl. How do you view
CF: That one is incredible, quite
sinister in a way. It's the one which
stays most in the mind. Playing it, you
almost forget to breathe.
MC: How do you view the work's structure?
Some players focus on its pattern of
threes, with a toccata, an elegant character
piece and a polyphonic canon coming round
CF: I haven't approached it in an
academic way - I've let it come naturally
to me. But I do see three clear sections.
I feel the first minor variation - no.15
- closes a section, and no.16 feels like
a restart, going through to no.25. I
always take the 26th - which comes in
so joyfully - as the beginning of the
end. After that point, it becomes progressively
MC: Was the small size of the harp
repertoire one of the triggers for this
CF: Certainly. There's always been
a lot of music composed by harpists -
most of them French - especially since
1810, when Sébastien Erard invented
the double-action pedal harp (allowing
all three accidentals), the instrument
which we still play today. But we have
hardly anything until 1900 from composers
who didn't play the harp themselves.
Now, following the French moderns, notably
Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, more
and more composers are writing for it.
But I dream of being able to play a Beethoven
sonata, and more Mozart piano concertos.
I've done an arrangement of an early
Mozart concerto - K.414 in A major: it's
quite lightly scored, so the harp can
come through. I'd like to do more of
MC: In other words, you're retrospectively
colonizing territory for your instrument.
CF: Well, since the harp has been
around since the beginning of time, I
think that's appropriate. But I'm also
doing it for my own pleasure - I've learned
most of the harp repertoire, and my way
forward is always to learn new pieces.
Bach is one of my favourite composers,
and the only way I can play more of him
is by putting him onto my instrument.
MC: Did you find it a challenge to
replicate the colour palette Bach requires?
CF: Not really. The harp is as capable
of varying the colour as any other instrument.
MC: What about the physical challenge?
CF: The stamina required for a live
performance is huge - bigger than with
any other work I've played. It's an epic
MC: But in a circle.
CF: Yes. I enjoy the aria at the
end much more than I do the opening one.
You've been through so much, gone through
so many different guises - when you get
to the simple aria again, it feels more
special. You've done the journey and
come back home.
MC: What do you feel now, when you
listen to your recording?
CF: Really pleased. With this, as
with any long-term, challenging project,
there were moments of doubt, so it's
a real pleasure to see - to hear -its
MC: What are your hopes for its future?
CF: That other people will play
it. My hope is that it will come to occupy
a respected place in the harp's core
repertoire, as always happens to good
arrangements. I hope it will be accepted
by the doubters, by people who say they
weren't expecting to enjoy it, but did.