We’re talking harpist’s hats, metaphorically of course. The topic arises in conversation with the renowned Welsh harpist Catrin Finch concerning her concert at the forthcoming Edinburgh International Harp Festival, when she will appear with Scotland’s ground-breaking ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber.
Finch, who was winning international competitions even before she graduated from the Royal Academy of Music in 2002, has gone on to forge a career which has combined acclaim in the classical concert hall with her solo, chamber or orchestral appearances and her arrangement for pedal harp of JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She collaborates with contemporary composers such as John Rutter and is a prolific composer in her own right. At the same time she sustains an interest in traditional Welsh music, combines contemporary, classical and jazz influences in her CF47 big band, and in 2013 released a spellbinding collaborative album, Clychau Dibon, with the Senegalese kora virtuoso Seckou Keita.
Finch’s harp festival collaboration with McFall’s, at Merchiston Castle School on 4 April, will present a chamber programme including richly impressionist material by Debussy and Ravel, as well as Saint-Saëns and a distinct chill of the Gothic with André Caplet’s little-heard Conte Fantastique for harp and string quartet, which is based on Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, The Masque of the Red Death, extracts of which will be read by Gillean McDougall.
Conte Fantastique is rather different to the rest of the programme, agrees Finch. “The Debussy and Ravel and Saint-Saëns are all very… kind of luscious, really, and typical of French impressionism – some of the best chamber music we have for harp. But the Caplet is a nice addition, very theatrical, with things like knocking on the harp soundboard when the Red Death is supposed to be at the castle door.”
She’s speaking to me from the Acapela recording studio and venue that she and her husband, sound engineer Hywel Wigley, run in a former chapel on the outskirts of Cardiff. Ask her if there is a particular type of music she most enjoys performing and she points to the Edinburgh programme. “I love playing chamber music and if I was to choose a particular period of classical music, it would be French impressionism.”
Which brings us round to the headgear question. “I’m a musician with two hats, really. If I put my classical hat on, it would be that type of impressionist music that rocks my boat, and if I put my other hat on, which is the one for improvising and other styles of music, then I love the freedom of being on stage with Seckou, in that there is nothing written down; it’s music that comes out of our hearts on the evening and for me, that’s a very inspirational thing to do.”
Her collaborators, Mr McFall’s Chamber – augmented here by flautist Alison Mitchell and Maximiliano Martin on clarinet – can famously boast a multiplicity of stylistic hats themselves, being known to play anything from Purcell to King Crimson, Astor Piazzolla to Weather Report.
And when it comes to eclecticism, the Edinburgh Harp Festival doesn’t shirk. This year’s programme spotlights Brittany, with guests including Tristan le Govic and François Pernel, as well as a celebration of the late Kristen Noguès, who was a considerable influence on harpists here as well as in France.
From Ireland comes the Albiez Trio – harpist Laoise Kelly, fiddler Tola Custy and Cormac Breatnach on whistles – in concert with Italians Adriano and Caterina Sangineto on harp and bowed psaltry. Notable Scots performers include the Corrina Hewat Quartet and the Rachel Hair Trio, plus emerging young artists such as Màiri Chaimbeul with fiddler Janna Moynihan, and Pippa Reid Foster (who recently released an impressive debut album, The Driftwood Harp), while a new event, The Magic of the Harp, showcases the “seed corn” school-age players essential in maintaining the burgeoning Scottish harp revival. ■
The Edinburgh International Harp Festival is at Merchiston Castle School 31 March-5 April, harpfestival.co.uk