Fennell Conducts Sousa (SACD review)

Frederick Fennell, Eastman Wind Ensemble. Mercury SACD 475 6182.

Conductor Frederick Fennell's recordings of John Philip Sousa marches, done in 1960 and 1961, have pretty much been in a class by themselves for over half a century. It was good to have them on Mercury Living Presence LP's, then a CD remastered back in the 1990's, and it's good to have them again on a newer Super Audio CD.

Fennell's way with Sousa is enthusiastic, to say the least. His exuberance overflows in tempos that are not always conducive to marching but always right for getting the blood running and the spine tingling. British critics seem to think these are typically "American" interpretations, meaning, I suppose, more enthusiastic and carefree than the English might play them. Perhaps. There is surely an aura of high good spirits about these Fennell readings.

The album combines two of Fennell's Sousa LP's, Sound Off and Sousa on Review. However, while there are twenty-four items represented, not every listener will be happy with the selections. Namely, the disc does not contain many of Sousa's best-known marches. You'll find no "Stars and Stripes Forever" here, or a "Washington Post" or a "Thunderer" or a "Semper Fidelis." What you do get are mostly lesser-known works from Sousa's output of over 100 marches: "Nobles of the Mystic Shrine," "Our Flirtation," "The Kansas Wildcats," "The National Game," that kind of thing. Of course, there are still a few old reliables: "The Liberty Bell" (can we listen today without thinking of Monty Python?), "Manhattan Beach," and "The Invincible Eagle." Fennell's Eastman Wind Ensemble closely approximates the size and disposition of Sousa's Marine Band, and Fennell said he tried to emulate Sousa's conducting style. I'm not sure. I rather suspect that Fennell is more ebullient in his performances than Sousa ever was.

In addition to Fennell's sometimes impetuous forward impulse, there is also a noticeable difference between the sound of the 1960 and 1961 recordings. The first twelve items are less weighty in the mid bass than the last twelve. The lightness gives them a degree more transparency, although I confess I preferred the greater realism of the fatter bass. The disc itself provides the music in three formats, with playback depending upon one's equipment. There is a three-channel layer for SACD, reproducing the recordings' original three-mike arrangements; there is a two-channel layer for SACD, again for SACD players only; and there is a regular two-channel layer for conventional CD players.  It's strong, vivid, well-projected sound in any case, especially in SACD.

Possibly the only drawback to the proceedings is that the SACD is more costly than, say, EMI's digital two-disc recording of forty-three Sousa marches by Lt. Col G.A.C. Hoskins and the Band of HM Royal Marines, which EMI offer at a bargain price. Ah, heck, buy 'em both.

JJP

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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.

Mission Statement

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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Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa