On Record: Don Banks: Vocal and Chamber Music (Toccata Classics)

Don Banks
Horn Trio (1962) a
Five North Country Folk Songs (1953) b
Prologue, Night Piece and Blues (1968) c
Three Studies (1954) d
Piano Sonatina in C sharp minor (1948) e
Violin Sonata (1953) f
Tirade (1968) g

(bg) Jenny Duck-Chong (mezzo-soprano), (c) Francesco Celata (clarinet), (a) Robert Johnson (horn), (af) Ole Böhn (violin), (d) Geoffrey Gartner (cello), (g): Rowan Phemister (harp), David Kim-Boyle (siren), Alison Pratt, Daryl Pratt, Joshua Hill (percussion), Daniel Herscovitch (piano)

Toccata Classics TOCC0591 [81’34″]

Producer David Kim-Boyle Engineer David Kinney

Recorded (cdf) 21 September (ag) 24 September and (be) 5 November 2020 at Recital Hall West, Conservatorium of Music, Sydney

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Toccata Classics provides a strong case for the greater recognition of Don Banks (1923-80) with this release of a representative cross-section of vocal and chamber works, performed by Australian and Australia-based musicians who are never less than empathetic with his music.

What’s the music like?

Wholly neglected following his untimely death, Banks was a senior figure in the generation of Australian composers – featuring such as Malcolm Williamson, David Lumsdaine and Nigel Butterley – who posited a decisive if hardly uniform course for the country’s music during the post-war era. Based in London for two decades, he made a living through teaching (notably at Goldsmith’s College) or writing music for horror films (notably Hammer productions), while evolving an increasingly personal language which can be heard in those works included here.

Earliest is the Piano Sonatina whose three movements – an agile Allegro, pensive Largo that nimbly amalgamates elements of fugue and chorale, then an impulsive Risoluto – constitute no mean statement of intent. It was the Violin Sonata which Banks considered his Op. 1, its pithy if contrasted ideas drawn into intensive development that effortlessly sustains a single movement whose 15 minutes seem never less than eventful. More unexpected is his identity with traditional sources in Five North Country Folk Songs (written for Sophie Wyss no less), whose piano accompaniments enhance the sentiment of each text with deadpan humour and audible affection. Reflecting his time spent with Dallapiccola (and, by extension, Webern), Three Studies for cello and piano applies its serial thinking both deftly and resourcefully.

By the 1960s, Banks had fashioned an idiom that was demonstrably but never slavishly of its time. One of the finest instances is the Horn Trio that, for all its inherent abstraction, pursues a tangible emotional trajectory from its forceful opening Allegro, via an Adagio of no mean eloquence, to a final Moderato in which the work’s arresting slow introduction is transformed through hunt-like gestures. Conversely, Prologue, Night Piece and Blues for Two underlines his love for jazz and its deployment within a ‘third stream’ context; here, the music’s restraint affords a sultriness alluring and ominous. Tirade could hardly be more different – its setting of Peter Porter’s impassioned poem on the increasing commercialization of Australian culture notable for a virtuoso vocal part and its imaginative writing for a sizable array of percussion.

Does it all work?

Almost always. Banks took a compositional path that assuredly takes no prisoners, yet which is rarely less than engrossing and, on occasion, affecting. Almost all these pieces would stand up well in recital today, not least for the opportunities they provide to enterprising performers. Other than the concertos for horn and violin (Lyrita), few of his major works are available in modern accounts, and if Toccata could undertake or even licence recordings of his orchestral Divisions or such cross-genre conceptions as Nexus and Meeting Place, so much the better.

Is it recommended?

Very much so. These performances, rarely less than authoritative, are heard to advantage in a spacious but never diffuse ambience. Daniel Herscovitch contributes detailed and informative annotations, and this release hopefully marks a first stage in the rediscovery of a major figure.

Listen & Buy

For buying options, and to listen to clips from the album, visit the Toccata Classics website. For more information on Don Banks, click here

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