Castanets and Cadenzas
DEANNA BLACHER (castanets) and NEVILLE COHN (piano)
His Majesty’s Theatre – Dress Circle Bar
reviewed by Stuart Hille
As with many percussion instruments, the castanets are poorly understood or stereotyped by the general audience. Perhaps one reason for this, by peculiar inversion, is that percussionists, generally, are personally introverted and unassuming musicians – unlike the music they are required to perform. Another reason might be that listeners often assume that percussionists only hit a few a pots and pans in the orchestral kitchen and do not require very much training or technical study.
Let us take the tenor drum, for example, for while its structure – a simple wooden cylinder with a stretched membrane – is almost the most basic of all instruments, we often fail to realise the attendant skill required to perform upon it.
The make of the instrument, where it is struck, the type of mallets used (there are almost infinite variations here) and let us not forget, the years of ongoing training and discipline required to accurately and sensitively execute a performance, are generally not appreciated by most listeners.
So when a universally acknowledged castanetist, such as Deanna Blacher, gives an informal lunchtime presentation replete with a short discussion, we should listen with care, because there is far more to castanets playing than most of realise.
The rhythmic patterns are intricate, the stylised body movement tightly calculated, the makes and sizes of the instruments extensive and dynamic shaping extremely important. Therefore, the technique and artistry required, at a professional level, are fiercely demanding.
This particular concert highlighted all these qualities.
Ably accompanied by pianist Neville Cohn, Ms Blacher introduced the audience to several styles and periods ranging from the classical through to the full-blooded late romantic / 20th century Spanish genre.
The classical works – a substantial portion of the programme – didn’t really allow the castanetist much room for independent expression, as pleasant as they were upon the ear. It was more a matter of both performers maintaining a tight relationship within strict tonal structures.
In works by Freixanet, Soler, Cantallos and Casanovas, this quality was well established. The piano lines were crisp and not over-pedalled (although the instrument seemed to have an intrinsic muted quality) and the castanet parts showed obvious dexterity and appropriate restraint.
And this was definitely the best approach, for while these pieces contained hints of eighteenth-century Spanish style, their overriding determinant was that of a general late baroque / early classical harmonic and melodic technique.
A surprising inclusion in the concert was Schubert’s Marche Militaire Op.51, No.2. In retrospect, the addition of this work (which comes off unexpectedly well with the embellishment of castanets) formed an intelligent stylistic bridge between the restraint of the previous pieces and the exuberance of the concluding compositions.
More surprising however, is the pianistic skill required by Schubert – large broad chords, a la mode military band, in rapid succession with the occasional melodic relief. While not all the chords reached their definitive target in this performance, there was no lapse in tempo and certainly no lacking of spirit.
Which brings us to the final two works by Lecuona where spirit and apparent freedom of line found excellent accord with both performers. In fact, in the Gitanerias, one felt the composer could have allowed himself to give the castanetist more room for greater abandonment.
Nevertheless, both accounts were given a sense of panache and boldness that, intuitively, felt exactly right. They also showed the castanets to have a unique percussive voice – one, as with many percussion instruments, we should better understand in order to appreciate fully.
It will be interesting to see if a purely solo work for castanetist, within a well-structured and timbrally varied framework, would be a possibility. Obviously, it would require the soloist to use, simultaneously, albeit in a fairly basic manner, other percussion instruments. But the concept, on the strength of this recital, is well worth investigating.