Music of the Civil War (HDCD review)

Frederick Fennell, Eastman Wind Ensemble. HDTT HDCD408.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) was one of the ugliest, bloodiest, most-destructive, most-divisive conflicts in the country's history. Moreover, it came smack dab in the middle of the Romantic period of classical music. I mention these two items at the outset because it may give you some idea of the popular music of the day. The music of the War had to serve a purpose, in part sad and sentimental and in part lively and uplifting. So that's the way conductor Frederick Fennell (1914-2004) plays it, depending on the piece in this classic, 1958 Mercury recording with the Eastman Wind Ensemble, remastered by HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers).

In the New York Times obituary of Fennell, colleague Jerry F. Junkin said of him, "He was arguably the most famous band conductor since John Philip Sousa." Certainly, Fennell did as much as anyone in the twentieth century to promote the wind ensemble as a serious orchestral group, something more than simply a band for performing marching music. As a result, on this disc Fennell does not attempt to make his collection of Civil War tunes of the North and the South a simple entertainment, although entertaining it is. The opening song, "Hail to the Chief," the Presidential anthem we usually hear done in quickstep time, is a good example. Fennell remembers the context of the Civil War and plays it almost as a dirge. This was no time to think of the President (both the North and the South used the song for their respective Presidents) in a joyous, festive, up-tempo manner; these were grave times, reflected in the gravity of the songs.

Anyway, Fennell does not do up all the tunes as gravely as "Hail to the Chief," with a few of them intended to buck up the spirits of the soldiers and the general population. It helps, too, that wherever possible he uses the original Civil War-era arrangements of the songs and something approaching the original instruments intended. The album includes eighteen selections, about half of them representing the North and half the South:

  1. "Hail to the Chief"
  2. "Listen to the Mocking Bird"
  3. "Palmyra Schottische"
  4. "Hail Columbia"
  5. "Freischutz Quickstep"
  6. "Parade"
  7. "Port Royal Galop"
  8. "Nightingale Waltz"
  9. "La Marseillaise"
10. "Dixie" and "Bonnie Blue Flag"
11. "Cheer Boys Cheer"
12. "Luto Quickstep"
13. "Old North State"
14. "Easter Galop"
15. "Come, Dearest, the Daylight Is Gone"
16. "Maryland, My Maryland"
17. "Waltz No. 19"
18. "Old Hundreth"

Frederick Fennell
Favorites? Sure thing. I liked the "Palmyra Schottische" for its vigor and vitality. "Hail Columbia" has a regal presence. "Freischutz Quickstep" is an invigorating march take on an old and familiar favorite, with Fennell appearing to have great fun with it. "Dixie" and "Bonnie Blue Flag" have an appropriate swagger to them. The "Ludo Quickstep" exhibits virtuoso playing. "Come, Dearest, the Daylight Is Gone" reflects the nostalgic Romanticism of the age. And if "Maryland, My Maryland" reminds you of "O Tannenbaum," well, it should, both songs based on the same sixteenth-century folk melody.

Conspicuous by its absence is "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Perhaps Fennell never recorded it for this particular collection. I don't know. In any case, I can't think of another disc of Civil War music better played or sounding more authentic than Fennell's. Kudos to HDTT for remastering this outstanding set.

Producer and recording director Wilma Cozart, co-engineer Robert W. Eberenz, and engineer and recording supervisor C. Robert Fine recorded the album in 1958 on 35mm film, and HDTT transferred the music to CD in 2014 from a Philips/Mercury 4-track tape. As with most Mercury recordings of the time, this one exhibits excellent imaging, both across the soundstage and into it. So we get dimensionality and depth, things often lacking in modern recordings. There is also good transparency, although not quite so much as on some of Ms. Cozart's own CD transfers; I suspect a touch of noise reduction reduced a little of the high-end sparkle. Nevertheless, the sound is very natural, warm and resonant, with good frequency balance and quick transients. The sonics clearly delineate each of the instruments while retaining a realistic roundness and lifelike hall ambience.

For further information on HDTT's various configurations, formats (CD, HQCD, FLAC, DSD, DVD-24, DVD-24, etc.), and prices, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com.

JJP

To listen to a few brief excerpts from this album, click here:

2 comments:

  1. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" was recorded by Dr. Fennell in a choral version and was included in the 2 CD Mercury set "The Civil War--Its Music and Its Sounds."

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, Jfddoc. I figured he probably recorded some version of it.

    ReplyDelete

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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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa