Catrin Finch and Aoife Ní Bhriain in the Sheldonian: A Review

After not performing for over 9 months due to the pandemic, in January 2021 both Catrin Finch and Aoife Ní Bhriain performed online in the Welsh music festival ‘Other Voices’. Although they were originally playing separately, the festival’s team suggested they should musically collaborate, initially causing difficulties due to them being in different countries. However, after visas were sorted, the pair sonically combined forces, creating a musical power duo, showcasing folk music from both Wales and Ireland, as well as their own virtuosic talents and chemistry.

On Friday 17 November in the Sheldonian Theatre, Finch and Ní Bhriain played a show promoting their new album Double You. Aoife Ní Bhriain is a highly versatile violinist, trained both in Classical violin and Irish traditional fiddle music and has performed both as a soloist and as part of world-renowned orchestras, winning multiple prizes and collaborating with other celebrated musicians. Catrin Finch is a highly gifted Classical harpist, who is heavily inspired by Welsh folk music and has been titled as the most gifted classical harp virtuoso of her generation, becoming the Official Harpist to the Prince of Wales during 2000 to 2004. During their performance, Ní Bhriain discussed how when the pair first met, they debated the similarities Wales and Ireland had, other than just the overall Celtic influence. Some key similarities were saints, pilgrimages, bees and the harp being the national instrument of both countries.

The programme began vibrantly with an altered rendition of J. S. Bach’s E major Prelude from Violin Partita No. 3. This firstly showcased the sheer talent of both performers, but also exposed the vibrant acoustics of the Sheldonian Theatre. A highlight to this rendition was the phrasing and echoing of repeated passages, significantly presenting the amount of care and attention given to each musical phrase.  

A legend connecting both countries is that of St. Aidan, who is said to have led the bees from Wales to Ireland over the sea by boat. ‘Wandering’, the fourth song in the performance, imagines a scene of this story taking place, however with one bee arriving late and having to catch up with the others. The piece started with a sombre, repeated pattern in the harp, with a lonely, wandering violin movement entering after. The intensity began to build, as the minor mode changed into a more longing, hopeful atmosphere, with the speed also increasing. This climaxed through heavier, buzzing ricocheted bows, as if the lone bee had found the rest of its hive, chasing the waves and wind. The piece ended with a return to a single violin line over the repeated harp movement, suggesting the bee had settled into its new habitat. ‘Wandering’ was one of the many times Finch and Ní Bhriain successfully used sonic storytelling in such a vividly active way, with many pieces following a discernible narrative.

As the name of their debut album suggests, all the songs on ‘Double You’ begin with the letter W and highlight stories based around these words, for example in the piece ‘Waggle’, relating to worker bees’ dance to show where food sources are. Finch explained that this was where the album’s title originated from, with the bees creating a W-shape with their rears. She further discussed how ‘Waggle’ was their own kind of waggle dance, with the piece being highly catchy and danceable.

On stage, Ní Bhriain had three violins and whilst joking about how she still couldn’t beat the number of strings Finch had, she explained how one of them was a Hardanger fiddle, a traditional Norwegian violin that has 9 strings, 5 of which are sympathetic strings under the 4 main strings, creating fluttering overtones. This violin was used during the piece ‘Woven’, which altered parts of one of Pietro Locatelli’s Caprices. Ní Bhriain stated that this cured her childhood annoyance of not being able to play Locatelli, due to not having big enough hands. The instrument made a beautiful, warm, reverberating sound, further emphasised by the Sheldonian’s acoustics.

One of the main purposes of the pair’s collaboration, as repeated throughout the programme, was to feature Celtic sounds both in Welsh and Irish traditional music. This was expressed through the continued fusion of Welsh and Irish folk songs. For example, the piece ‘Waves’ combined an Irish hornpipe called ‘Galway Bay’ and an old Welsh tune called ‘My Mother-in-Law’s Lament’. This atmospherically caused a reverent homage to both their personal and instrumental heritages, further emphasising the importance of creatively keeping ancient cultural traditions alive.

After bows and applause, Catrin Finch and Aoife Ní Bhriain came back onto the Sheldonian stage, performing the encore ‘Wish’, which incorporated a variety of different folk songs from both Wlesh and Irish music. But before performing the piece, Ní Bhriain discussed how it had been 100 years since Ireland gained independence as a state and how it had been 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. She remembered how, although she was only 7 and did not fully understand the importance of this agreement at the time, the significance of having peace with your neighbours began to grow extensively important in her and Ireland’s life as a whole. She stated that this was one of the most important pieces of information to take away from their performance, especially in current global circumstances. The speech ended with Ní Bhriain testifying how music presents the similarities between humans, rather than the differences, for example through the correlations between Welsh and Irish folk music.

Overall, Catrin Finch and Aoife Ní Bhriain’s performance at the Sheldonian Theatre was a truly magical experience, with both musicians’ virtuosic nature and chemistry being emphasised through their celebration of a wide rage of genres, especially Celtic folk music. This concert was part of Music at Oxford’s 40th anniversary series, which dedicates space to a wide range of artists, whilst also celebrating the management’s long history of honouring and promoting the arts in Oxford.