Top critical review
12 people found this helpful
on 14 June 2009
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was heavily into Genesis, and the songs I found most inventive and imaginative tended to be those written by Tony Banks. `Me and Sarah Jane' from the `Abacab' album had a certain orchestral grandeur to it. I was therefore intrigued when I heard that Tony Banks had written a suite for orchestra.
And yet the orchestration has been done by Simon Hale. Why? For, it is the orchestration that adds character to the notes; a piece written by Vaughan Williams and orchestrated by him is profoundly different from a piece he has written and orchestrated by someone else. Banks writes in the sleevenotes, "I wanted to make sure that the pieces ended up being a true representation of what I had originally written, even though I know I was going to need the help of an orchestrator." I am surprised that Banks does not consider he has the experience to orchestrate the pieces himself, especially with the software that has been available since the 1980s.
On first hearing, I was disappointed by how twee the suite sounds, at the conservatism and traditionalism on offer. I was reminded of Miss Marple! Is this the music of the twenty-first century? Hardly; it could have been written one hundred years ago. Is Banks making a stake for film soundtrack commissions? But on further hearings, I grew more appreciative of the Englishness of the soundscape, which often mirrors a Home Counties pastorale. By the way, I found it easier to appreciate the pieces by not thinking of their titles; indeed, it would have been better, in my view, to have called the suite `Seven Orchestral Etudes'. They are at best a pleasant set, but I was never moved.
After the opening `Spring Tide', the second piece, `Black Down', orchestrated almost exclusively for strings, opens with hints of Barber's famous adagio, betraying a quiet melancholy, but later transformed into a warmer take on something that hints at Vaughan Williams. Then follows `The Gateway', a lovers' theme for a soundtrack. There is a pleasant theme on the flute; indeed, everything is all oh so pleasant! The climax of the piece brought John Barry to mind.
The fourth piece, `The Ram', is the only allegro and is probably the best of the set. It's a shame that it is not as incisive or as angry or stormy as it could have been. Something grand could have been made of this with its mocking brass and incessant rhythm. It is let down again by too large a dose of pleasantness. The fifth, `Earthlight', is light and fluffy; the sixth, `Neap Tide' starts with rhythms that hint of things becoming interesting, but alas Class FM calls!
The seventh and final track, `The Spirit of Gravity' (yeah, right), at almost twelve minutes, is the longest piece. Despite an interesting opening, we enter the world of what sounds like children's games in a playground. The recapitulation of the opening theme could have been so easily developed into a Bruckner-style chorale, but it fades too soon into Sibelian woodwind trills. The resulting ride through themes heard earlier in the work is, though, quite impressive, and `Seven' ends poignantly unresolved.
The London Philharmonic is conducted by Mike Dixon. There is a fragility often evident in the playing of the pieces, which may or may not have been intended. Banks himself plays the piano. It does not appear on all the tracks and, when it does, it is not too obtrusive; it is merely another instrument in the `pleasant' mix.