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Piano Sonata No.1 (2000) [14:37]
Five Pentatonic Preludes (1999) [7:28]
Piano Sonata No.2 ("Sequesto è un uomo") (2005) [22:34]
Piano Sonata No.3 ("Sonata for the Rainy Season") (2005) [14:38]
Port Townsend Preludes (2001) [7:14]
Geoffrey Burleson (piano)
rec. 2001-2006, Patrych Sound Studios, New York City
CENTAUR CRC 2893 [66:44]

Experience Classicsonline


The internet doesn’t give away much about Brian Banks. The booklet for this release tells us that he hails from Seattle, and is currently living and working in Mexico after collecting numerous prestigious prizes on the way. It also says that he is "a composer trained in the ‘contemporary music tradition’", which can mean almost anything these days, and is in fact almost a contradiction in terms. The eclectic mix of styles in the music is reflected in Banks’ interest in jazz and traditional styles such as klezmer and flamenco.

The three Piano Sonatas on this disc were all written for the pianist who has recorded them, Geoffrey Burleson. The Piano Sonata No.1 is less a sonata as a set of character pieces, introducing Banks’ predilection for gamelan sounding scales in the twee sounding movement ‘Metric Misdemeanours’, which is nonetheless a fascinatingly compressed fantasy of extremes. The third movement, Maestoso, has some nice counterpoint in a cross between quasi-Bach and semi-Shostakovich, and the piece is topped off by a raunchy Blues.

Simplified scales are let rip in a set of five compositional and pianistic studies called Five Pentatonic Preludes. None of these go much beyond a minute and a half, and there is a great deal of sparse invention and exploration of colour and nuance. The ghosts of late Liszt, Schubert and Janacek flit through the first three. The fourth Andante is more what one might expect, with that inescapable oriental association at work, as is the case with the final compact little stab of glory; An Estampie for Lou Harrison.

The Piano Sonata No.2 has a generally more introverted feel, with a central improvisatory Psalm framed by a poignant opening Prelude and a strong final Postlude, the former infusing the soulful melodies of klezmer and blues, the latter approaching something like les cloches engloutie. The opening of the Psalm is less what one might expect, having the kind of relentless rhythmic drive and restricted range of notes which is a kind of cross between Messiaen and Keith Jarrett. A more hymn like chorale develops later – G.I Gurjieff with interruptions. This builds later more towards Respighi in stained-glass mood mixed with gospel. I have my doubts about this movement, but then, life is full of doubts.

Piano Sonata No.3 begins each movement with an ‘optional improvisation’, the length of each being given, so we know where the written music begins. Geoffrey Burleson is very good at exploring the tonalities and scales used in each movement, and certainly serves the pianism in all of these pieces very well indeed. With some of the tinges of jazz and plenty of open intervals, this has some of the most American sounding music amongst these pieces. The final set of Port Townsend Preludes are, in the words of the performer, ‘lovely, unpretentious and captivating.’ Written in a deliberately straightforward and deceptively simple idiom, these would be as nice an introduction to new piano music as I could imagine for any student.

Depending on your expectations, this will either enthuse you, or drive you up the wall. Brian Banks speaks with an honest voice and a directness of expression which has its own innate appeal, but you have to be in tune to some of his points of reference, and prepared to sympathise with his treatment of them. The music is certainly not dull, but neither is it particularly challenging or demanding of the listener – depending of course on your experience as a listener. I suppose what I miss is that big ‘wow’ factor of discovery, the one that goes beyond technical brilliance and vivid invention, the one which stamps its muddy feet all over your soul and leaves you a changed person. All in all however, this is a superb release which demands a wide audience. Centaur’s piano recording is excellent as ever, and the piano in the Patrych studios still has that twangy note in the upper register which is turning into something of an old friend after living with it through an entire cycle of Messiaen.

Dominy Clements




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