Sousa's Greatest Marches (CD review)

Keith Brion, Royal Artillery Band. Naxos 8.572651-52 (2-disc set).

John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was to marches what the Strausses were to waltzes. He produced a ton of them, people loved them, and they all remain popular. The American conductor and composer, often called "The March King" (or "The American March King" to differentiate him from other well-known march composers of the time, now, ironically, almost forgotten), led several bands, including "The President's Own" Marine Band and the Sousa Band. During this time, he wrote some 136 marches, many of which people can still whistle or hum from memory, as well as a flock of operettas.

OK, I hear you ask, but who actually listens to marches anymore? Well, I daresay there are more marching bands, brass bands, and concert bands in the country today than there are bands or orchestras of any other kind. Think about it: Almost every junior high, high school, and college in the land has one or more bands, and they play in classrooms, auditoriums, and athletic games practically every day of the week. Then count in the number of city, community, and fraternal bands there are across the nation, who play in park bandstands and celebratory parades every week, and the number becomes staggering. I'd be willing to bet that most symphony orchestra trombonists and rock group drummers got their start in a school band somewhere. So, Sousa, we have not forgotten you.

Maybe that's why, too, the world's record companies keep producing albums of Sousa's marches, just this week my having received two such collections from two different labels. The one under consideration here is a two-disc compilation from Naxos featuring thirty-four of the composer's best-loved tunes, played by as serious a band as you'll find, the Royal Artillery Band of the Royal Artillery regiment in Woolwich, SE London. The Royal Artillery Band are an ensemble first formed in 1557, and which, according to the booklet notes, appears on any given day as "a symphonic wind band (one of the largest in the British army), a marching unit, or a full symphony orchestra (England's oldest established symphony orchestra)." It's a remarkable group.

Sousa's Greatest Marches begins with "Hands Across the Sea" (1899), maybe not Sousa's most-familiar piece but certainly a stirring curtain raiser. It also demonstrates the type of playing we can expect from the rest of the program: enthusiastic, energetic, yet refined, and warmly recorded. Never mind that the tempo is a tad too quick actually to march to; it's the spirit the counts. Next is "Semper Fidelis" (1888), which the Marine Corps later adopted as their official theme song, and which does come off in genuine march time.

Among other marches of particular standing are "Saber and Spurs" (1918), with its horses and hoofbeats in military gait; the danceable melodies of "King Cotton" (1895); a fairly sedate "Liberty Bell" (1893) that enjoyed a resurgence of fame with the Monty Python players; the courtly "Black Horse Troop" (1924), with even more hoofbeats; and the zesty "Fairest of the Fair" (1908).

Disc one concludes with what are possibly Sousa's most-celebrated creations: "The Thunderer" (1889), "The Washington Post" (1889), and "The Stars and Stripes Forever" (1896), sure winners no matter how people play them, here done up quite stylishly.

Disc two contains marches only slightly less well known than those on disc one. Among the highlights are "Wisconsin Forward and Forever" (1917); the picturesque "Invincible Eagle" (1901); one of Sousa's personal favorites, "The Diplomat" (1904); the jaunty "Jack Tar" (1903); the baseball-inspired "National Game" (1925), with its batted balls and crowd noises; and the rousing "Naval Reserve March" (1917).

What Maestro Brion lacks in adrenaline, he more than makes up for in nuance and color. There's a reserved pluck about these performances that is hard to resist.

The recordings, made between 1999 and 2005 and selected from several previously released Naxos discs, I said earlier sound warm and inviting. There is a fine sense of air and space around the instruments, despite a degree of thickness to the sonics in some tracks, with enough distance from the listener to provide a depth and bloom to the ensemble. Dynamics are good, too, although the bass drum whacks could have been more gut thumping. Yet it's the delicate segments that are most appealing, the highs, the triangles, the cymbals, and such. It is a generous and affectionate presentation of the music.


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Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
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I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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