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Bach: Goldberg Variations / Caitrin Finch

Finch,Catrin / Bach
Release Date: 06/23/2009 
Label:  Deutsche Grammophon   Catalog #: 001302002  
Composer:  Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Catrin Finch
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Back Order: Usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

BACH Goldberg Variations Catrin Finch (hp) DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 001302002 (63:56)

Did you know Britain’s Prince of Wales had an officially appointed harpist? Neither did I. It must be a Welsh thing. If Charles personally selected Catrin Finch for the job, he certainly didn’t choose a frump. (Do frumpy harpists even exist? I don’t think I have ever seen one. They’re elegant and remote, like their instrument.)

Now Deutsche Grammophon has chosen the young Welsh musician, and Read more Universal’s design department has groomed her to a defiant sexiness (judging from the obligatory seven shots in the booklet). The classic marketing treatment gives this issue a nudge towards the “easy listening” bin, which is a shame, because it is more than that. It is a skillful and well-executed transcription of one of music’s keyboard masterpieces.

The Goldberg Variations is an oft-transcribed work. In the last two decades, Dmitri Sitkovetsky produced a version for string trio and another for string orchestra, while Robin Holloway created a monumental two-piano elaboration of the original. So why not transcribe it for the harp? It is a plucked instrument, arguably closer to the harpsichord in that respect than the modern concert grand. (Interestingly, Finch first got to know the work through Glenn Gould’s piano recordings.) There is no denying the plain truth, however: Bach’s keyboard writing rarely sits easily with this instrument. Scales and arpeggios suit the harp beautifully, but extended trills are another matter. Just listening to them could cause tendonitis. Also, the design of the instrument is problematical. It does not have a separate string for each note of the chromatic scale, for the legitimate reason that human arms are only so long. The pitch of the strings must be altered by the pedals, so a heavily chromatic piece like Variation 25 necessitates a good deal of fancy footwork.

Finch explains all this in her booklet interview, and candidly admits that some variations come off better than others. Among the better ones, aside from the theme itself, I would nominate the stately Variation 7. With its wide intervals and graceful tempo, this sounds completely idiomatic. Some composer should borrow it as the theme for a new set of variations for solo harp. In some of the quick variations, the instrument’s propensity to sustain muddies the texture (for instance, Variations 14 and 26), and while in Finch’s capable hands it has a decent dynamic range, the upper register invariably cuts through more aggressively than the lower.

As a performer, in spite of the hurdles (or perhaps because of them) Finch is fearless. She never plays a ritard when passagework gets complicated, as pianists are wont to do, and the fast tempos she adopts in some variations reveal her admiration for Gould.

For all that, this disc remains a fascinating oddity. I hope her contract with DG will enable Finch to record works composed specifically for the harp. Without even leaving home, she could start with the wonderful music of William Mathias, and I would definitely like to hear the concerto John Rutter is writing for her. As far as Bach on the “wrong” instrument goes, I’ll stick with Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations or the recent piano version by Simone Dinnerstein.

Finch’s Goldberg transcription was a labor of love. The performance displays both those aspects in equal measure.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott
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Works on This Recording

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Performer:  Catrin Finch (Harp)
Period: Baroque 
Written: 1741-1742; Nuremberg, Germany 

Featured Sound Samples

Goldberg Variations: Variation no 2
Variation no 29
Variation no 31

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