Royal Schools Music Club

Fiddling with Castanets:

Deanna Blacher (castanets)/ Neville Cohn (piano)

Callaway Auditorium

reviewed by John Meyer


photo Maree Laffan.


Following on from their very successful concert last year, Deanna Blacher and Neville Cohn again combined their remarkable talents in an entertaining October recital entitled Fiddling with Castanets.  The programme consisted of piano works by the famous Spanish composers Enrique Granados and Isaac Albéniz, including popular pieces such as Andaluza (Granados),  Asturias and Cadiz (Albéniz), as well as some that are not as well known.

It would have been well worth attending the concert just to hear Neville Cohn draw such stylish and absorbing sounds from the Callaway Auditorium’s Steinway.  But his playing was greatly enhanced by Deanna Blacher’s skillful use of the castanets, complementing not only the rhythmic impetus but also the melodic contours of this very appealing Spanish music.  Theirs was a coordinated understanding, obviously honed over many years of practice and performance together, and for which no praise could be too great.

Blacher also contributed informative comments about castanets and the various pairs she chose to use – including a “fat” pair sent to her from a maker in Seville, which helped to project the strong sound required to match Cohn’s robust playing in Sardana by Granados.

On a lighter note, Cohn kept the audience entertained with delightful anecdotes about the two composers who had completely different experiences on trans-Atlantic sea voyages.  Granados drowned when his ship was torpedoed in the English Channel in 1916, while he was returning from the successful premiere of his opera Goyescas in New York – allegedly taken under by the weight of the gold bars which he received as payment, and which were strapped in a belt around his waist.  On the other hand, the child prodigy Albéniz stowed away at the age of twelve and paid his way by playing the piano each evening in the first-class saloon of an ocean liner – and then in a New York bar, astonishing patrons by tickling the ivories with his back to the keyboard.   At one stage, Blacher played with her hands behind her back – but not surprisingly, Cohn did not!



W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn


If you haven’t heard of Grace Clifford, make a note of her name because, one the evidence of her performance with the WASO at the weekend, she is on a fast track to the stars. This young violinist is still an undergraduate – she is in her final year for a B.Mus degree at Curtis Institute – but when she puts bow to string, her playing is astonishingly mature.  And her extraordinary musical gift was abundantly in evidence at Perth Concert Hall as, with Leo Hussain on the podium, she took us on a musical journey through Dvorak’s Violin Concerto, a work that is a closed book for any but the most accomplished of fiddlers.

It is fiercely taxing – but this young artiste sailed through the work with an ease that was astonishing. But there is far more to this phenomenal musician than playing the right notes and keeping in tune. Again and again as the work unfolded, the young Clifford revealed the music’s emotional essence. It’s a fairly long work; it runs for a little over half an hour – and I’d have been delighted if she’d chosen to play it all again.

Whether evoking the passionate ardour of much of the writing or, in the work’s more reflective moments, bringing extraordinary expressiveness, at times tenderness, to her playing, Grace Clifford could hardly be faulted. And from the conductor’s podium, Hussain, in black lounge suit and black tie, took the orchestra through a near-flawless accompaniment. Andrew Nicholson’s contribution on flute was impeccable. Much the same could be said of the French horn players.

After rapturous, prolonged – and thoroughly deserved – applause (with the WASO players enthusiastically clapping as well) – we were given an encore. With lights dimmed, we listened to a stunningly fine account of Bach’s Sarabande in D minor. It was beyond criticism, a model of highest musicianship. The slightest lapse in music such as this is instantly, glaringly apparent. Here, though, it bordered on perfection.

As curtainraiser, we listened to the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an account which focussed strongly on its dramatic moments. The latter’s emotional darkness was impressively evoked – and the buoyancy of lighter measures was no less convincingly conveyed.

Bohuslav Martinu’s music hardly ever features in a WASO performance – so programming his Jazz Suite was something of an occasion. It’s scored for twelve players (the program note listed only ten). I especially liked the outer movements: quirky and zany, brimming with good humour. It was like a breath of fresh air. In the 2nd movement – tempo di blues –  bassoonist  Jane Kircher-Lindner was well to the fore and sounding in her element. So, too, was oboist Huw Jones, much on his mettle – and Graeme Gilling was in customary fine form at the piano.




W.A.Symphony Orchestra

Perth Concert Hall

reviewed by Neville Cohn


Sibelius’ name and reputation are inextricably linked to his symphonies. They are the bedrock of his fame. But, these aside, he was a most prolific composer. A fair number of these works could fairly be described as tripe – but there are also shorter orchestral pieces which are gems in the highest sense.

One of these, the Prelude to Shakespeare’s The Tempest is a superb evocation of a storm, of a frightening maelstrom – and when played with such focussed skill as was the case at the weekend, the question arises: why have compilers so neglected this work? In the long history of the orchestra, it has been programmed only once before – in 2009..

Wonderfully evocative of howling wind, thunder and lightning flashes, guest conductor Ludovic Morlot and the WASO sounded in their element, clearly as one as the piece unfolded. It drew me to the edge of my seat.

At the other end of the emotional scale was Tchaikowsky’s Andante cantabile from his String Quartet No 1 in an arrangement for cello and strings. It is one of the composer’s loveliest essays in calmness – and at the weekend, cellist Gautier Capucon reigned supreme. Here was musicmaking to soothe, surely, even the most agitated soul. It was an exquisite offering. Bravo!

Earlier, Capucon was soloist in the same composer’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. Here, too, we were drawn – willingly – into Tchaikowsky’s unique sound and mood world. To ensure the cello line could reach the listener unencumbered by a too-heavy accompaniment, the composer wrote for a much reduced orchestra – no brass except for horns, no percussion. It was a performance that riveted the attention. Throughout, Capucon’s cello line adapted chameleon-like to the subtlest sound colours that the work calls for. And with Morlot’s conducting achieving a consistently first rate accompaniment, this interpretation reached for – and touched – the stars. Variation 6 was particularly fine with Mary-Anne Blades’ contribution on flute a highlight.

Also on the program were Debussy’s La Mer and Sibelius’ The Oceanides.

Those who missed the concert can listen to a broadcast on ABC Classic FM on Saturday 13 October at noon.

Australian String Quartet

Government House Ballroom

review by Neville Cohn


It was a fascinating experience listening to James Ledger’s String Quartet No 2. It was played by the visiting Australian String Quartet which is giving the work its world premiere performances on its current tour of Australia.

When it comes to predicting success or otherwise for compositions being given their first performances, critics have a terribly unreliable reputation. Music history brims with instances of critics giving the thumbs up for this or that new work but in very many instances, these compositions extolled as works of genius have quietly sunk into oblivion.

On the other hand, there’s many a new work which critics have slammed for any of a long list of reasons – and an embarrassingly high number of these critically panned works have gone on to universal recognition as masterworks! Consider just a few of those which were initially given the thumbs down: Puccini’s La Boheme (“silly and inconsequential”), Tosca (“distinctly raw-boned and hideous”), Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (“baffles verbal description:, “to say that much of it is hideous as sound is a mild description”), Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (”trite, feeble, conventional – fussy and futile counterpoint”). The list is very long.

This notwithstanding, and while not a betting man as a rule, I’d put money on Ledger’s latest offering.

As pointed out in a useful program note, each instrument plays into its own microphone, the sound travelling to a computer where it undergoes a series of manipulations whereby the sound is recorded and instantly played back in a continuous, repeating loop. This is the essence of the work’s electronic dimension. The loop alters in a number of ways according to the score. The beauty of this process is the discreet manner in which electronics are utilised. They never dominate proceedings but complement the players’ contributions in the most effective ways. The combined effect is consistently pleasing, often fascinating, with Adele Conlin doing wonders as electronics cum sound engineer positioned at the rear of the hall.

I’d really like to listen to this work again because there was so much intriguing detail here, that it wasn’t possible to assimilate it at a single hearing. It certainly deserves the widest listenership. Hopefully, it will soon become available on CD.

Schubert’s Rosamunde Quartet opened the program. Incredibly, this was the only chamber work of Schubert’s that received a public performance during his tragically short lifetime. Knowing this, it is impossible to listen to the work and remain unmoved by the sheer unfairness and tragedy of the composer’s all-too-short life.

How beautifully it was played by the ASQ. I particularly admired the andante movement unfolding seamlessly with notes clothed in splendid corporate tone. There was excellent internal balance here. Most importantly, its poignancy was impeccably evoked. And the bittersweet essence of the Menuetto was no less convincingly conveyed. The finale was essayed with high finesse.

Photographer: Samuel Jozeps   Australian String Quartet with Adele Conlin (3rd from left) and James Ledger (2nd from right)
Photographer: Samuel Jozeps
Australian String Quartet with Adele Conlin (3rd from left) and James Ledger (2nd from right)


Prior to the concert and during the interval, finest cheeses and biscuits on exquisite, white napery were available to concertgoers in the ballroom’s undercroft.