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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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa