Conductor: Paul Englishby
Orchestra: The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra
Performers: Charlie Siem (Violin), Martin Robertson (Alto saxophone)
Year of recording: 2011
SPARS Code: DDD
About the Composer: Tony Banks (1950- ) is best known for his involvement with the progressive rock band Genesis, but his keen interest in classical idioms has driven him to create music for the residents of the orchestra pit.
About the Music: Six is Banks’ second album released under the Naxos label (A suite for orchestra entitled Seven was his first, published in 2004) and includes six orchestral pieces which, according to Banks, “… refer to the elements of a universal story: seductress, journey, hero, quest, decision and goal.” He adds that the album is “a story without words,” and that listeners will need to fill in the details for themselves. The cover art for the disc, depicting six mysterious boxes emanating radiant light from their open tops, is certainly fitting. This is warm, yet often wistful music; don’t expect anything with the same caliber of aggression as a Genesis work like Land of Confusion. Two of the pieces, Siren and Blade, are interesting soloist vehicles.
Siren: This is no smoky burlesque excursion, despite the sultry title and the fact that the soloist grips an alto saxophone. Banks distances the listener far from questionable sidestreets and escorts them along a spacious, pastel-hued boardwalk of delights. There are no cadenzas lurking about as the soloist works continually with the orchestra to festoon the landscape with vibrant flares. Siren serves its purpose well as the ignition key for the disc and is arguably the flagship piece to be found here.
Still Waters: According to Banks, Still Waters is the ‘journey’ piece, and listeners will quickly learn why. The name of the piece suggests a summer idyll, but I found Still Waters to possess more of a wintry motif in part because its slow yet steady pacing suggests a laborious but awe-inspiring sub-zero trek. Furthermore, there’s even a short passage towards the end that sounds like an excerpt from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas! Fascinating.
Blade: The second soloist-centric work in Six, Blade places high demands on the violinist. After an energetic introduction from the orchestra, the violin emerges with considerable vigour. As Siem works his way through the score, listeners may find themselves wondering if the soloist is using the instrument as some sort of improvised weapon and is training with it in preparation for future encounters with evildoers. There are moments in the music which seem to intimate that the ‘hero’ of the piece has steep challenges to face, but they ultimately prove to be no match for him.
Wild Pilgrimage: This piece isn’t nearly as engaging as the other works in Six, but Banks still succeeds in evoking a palpable sense of majesty. Many of the passages here could easily accompany time-lapse footage of panoramic vistas from a Natural Geographic production.
The Oracle: If one was to transform the individual works in Six into living, breathing humans with distinct personalities, Oracle would probably be the innocent, inquisitive youngster who sits down with a pillow and lays his back against a mature oak tree while quietly gazing at the nearby meadows. It’s the most childlike work on the disc; I place it one rung below Siren in my list of favourites.
City of Gold: Not surprisingly, the final segment of Six is the longest, clocking in at just over 12 minutes. While the work has a main theme befitting of a triumphant, impregnable fortress whose size and grandeur evades the sight of no one, the boldness peels away at times to make room for some calm and highly mellifluous passages. These serene episodes are the highlight of City of Gold, and I appreciate how Banks skillfully weaves them into the bombast.
The sextet has a running time of roughly 52 minutes. Monocle-bearing purists will promptly pry open the lateral filing cabinet drawer and stuff Six into the corpulent ‘Cloying Movie Music’ folder. Though the pieces were not composed for use in a film, they do have an undeniably cinematic essence about them. They are of sterling quality nonetheless, and will appeal to a significant audience. Will Banks continue the countdown?