This is one of the latest issue
of recordings from the Mercury Living Presence series. These
were originally recorded from the 1950s to the 1970s and are
remarkable for many titles remaining almost continuously available
in the catalogue into the 21st century. I still possess
the original LP of Sound Off and as it was my introduction to Sousa’s
marches, will continue to value it.
The CD contains marches that
Sousa composed over nearly fifty years. It gives an interesting
picture of how varied his approach was over that time.
The notes by Frederick Fennell
from the original LPs are included with the disc. The recorded
sound is excellent, reminding me of how much better the original
recordings sounded, compared to some other recordings of the
same date. I would not rank Sousa among my favourite composers.
However, his unfailing enthusiasm and positive approach cannot
be faulted. He is quoted as saying “ A march stimulates every centre of vitality, wakens the imagination
... But a march must be good. It must be as free from padding
as a marble statue. Every line must be carved with unerring
skill ... There is no form of musical composition where
the harmonic structure must be more clear-cut.” Having said
that, I must advise the listener to avoid listening to all these
marches in one go. Even the most avid Sousaphile
must surely need relief from so much uplifting positive
Each march usually has some
unique touch. An example would be his use of percussion. In
Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (1923) he includes,
as well as triangle and tambourine, both used to good effect,
the bell tree or Schellenbaum. This
is an arrangement of bells on a long staff. It can clearly be
heard adding a “Turkish” effect to the march. This march is
additionally unusual in that it has a part for harp – not a
common fixture in marching bands!
The Liberty Bell (1893) similarly uses
the percussive forces of the Eastman Ensemble to good effect,
although the eponymous Bell
does not add a very noble sound.
The Eastman Ensemble are bright
and precise, with Fennell briskly taking the band along. I’m
not sure that such breakneck tempi are always ideal. The more
recent recordings by the Royal Artillery Band under Keith Brion (Naxos 8.559131) are an example of a less frenetic
approach. In the end it depends on personal preference and the
way you feel at the time.
One thing is certain, the listener
is never unsure when a Sousa march has finished!