John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
Sousa’s Greatest Marches
Full track-listing at the end of this review
Royal Artillery Band/Keith Brion
rec. 5-6 August 1999, Henry Wood Hall, London; 16-17, 29-30 November 2000, 15-16 January 2002, 11-12, 17-18 January 2005, Woolwich Town Hall, London; 9-10 August 1999, 10-11 January 2002, Blackheath Concert Halls, London
NAXOS WIND BAND CLASSICS 8.572651-2 [53:43 + 54:59]
There’s something uniquely visceral about a military band in full cry, even more so if the music is as accomplished - and stirring - as that of John Philip Sousa. This American ‘march king’ was certainly prolific, composing more than 100 marches over a period of some 40 years. On disc he was very well served by Wilma Cozart and her team at Mercury, who produced the most celebrated Sousa collection of the early stereo era. Even after fifty years this recording - featuring Frederick Fennell and his Eastman Wind Ensemble - still sounds remarkably fresh and dynamic (Mercury 434 300-2) (other Fennell/EWE reviews). For a short time it was also available on SACD, copies of which can be found on the Internet at ridiculous prices.
Cost is hardly an issue with this Naxos set, made up of items from their eight-volume series with the Royal Artillery Band under Keith Brion. The London-based ensemble, formed in 1762, has a fine reputation; indeed, Raymond Walker warmly welcomed their last Sousa disc - review (previous Naxos series reviews indexed here). As for the avuncular Mr Brion, leader of his own New Sousa Band, he is also associated with Alan Hovhaness, some of whose works he has premiered. So, he certainly has the credentials for this repertoire, but how does he stack up against Fennell?
Inevitably with a collection made over a number of years - and divided among three venues - balances and perspectives are variable. Hands Across the Sea, recorded in London’s Henry Wood Hall, gets the collection off to a cracking start, but the stereo focus is a little narrow, the acoustic a tad dry. That said, it’s a polished and strangely affecting performance, that recurring tune liable to lodge in one’s mind for hours afterwards. The sound in Woolwich Town Hall is fuller and more reverberant; in fact the latter’s more expansive acoustic suits Semper Fidelis very well, the snap of the snare drum particularly well caught. Even better are Blackheath Concert Halls, where these spacious versions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers and Sabre and Spurs were recorded, albeit three years apart.
Really, sonics aren’t a huge issue here, especially when the music is this well played. It won’t efface memories of the Fennell disc - there’s a brightness and brio there that’s hard to beat - but I doubt lovers of this repertoire will feel the music loses anything in translation as it were. True, the bass drum in King Cotton would have benefited from less restricted dynamics - this music, poorly represented on SACD, cries out for a decent high-res recording - but the Artillery brass are refined and well articulated, the percussion discreet but easily heard. It’s a disciplined sound, with none of the tubby, sometimes rather florid sound one associates with British bands past and present.
The real test of collections such as this is whether they pall after a few tracks; happily that’s not the case here, such is the energy and inventiveness of Sousa’s output. Monty Python fans will recognise The Liberty Bell, played here in an arrangement by James Ord-Hume. It’s wonderfully perky, the bells nicely done, but it’s the sparkling renditions of Hail to the Spirit of Liberty and the baton-twirling High School Cadets that will surely win Sousa - and this band - some new admirers. The rest of disc one is just as exhilarating; Fairest of the Fair - winsome in parts, ebullient in others - The Thunder and The Washington Post more subtly scored than their macho titles might suggest. The only real disappointment is Sousa’s calling-card, The Stars and Stripes Forever; it’s rather distant and, despite some rousing moments in the final straight, it’s no match for the likes of Fennell, Fiedler, Kunzel and others.
One dullish track out of seventeen ain’t bad, although the start of disc two - Nobles of the Mystic Shrine - is also a tad underwhelming. The bass is rather boomy and ill-defined, but at least the percussion is well caught. And if you’re expecting The Invincible Eagle to follow you’ll be sorely disappointed; the third track on this disc is in fact the first of Sousa’s Quotations, subtitled ‘The King of France’, from Volume 6 in the series (8.559132). No matter; this and The Diplomat are superbly sprung, the variety and symphonic thrust of this pair reminiscent of Suppé and the Strausses. Two terrific performances and glorious apotheoses, on their own enough to make this a must-have collection. And goodness, the brush of cymbals in the peppy Picador is thrilling, the piece played with more ease and affection than we’ve heard thus far. This is the sound of a band having fun, and I daresay the rollicking Jack Tar will raise a few smiles as well.
The players really seem to be hitting their stride at last, with a string of foot-tapping tunes, from the fizzy America First to the high-spirited whistles of The Atlantic City Pageant via the goosebump-inducing sound of Auld lang syne, as used in The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company. There are other nuggets here too, among them the Spanish-inspired La Flor di Sevilla, which has splendid bounce and verve. And may I sneak in a ‘wow’ for The National Game, with its sound of baseball on bat and the cheers and whistles of an enthusiastic crowd. It’s a riotous piece, worthy of Charles Ives, and it’s rousingly played to boot. Speaking of sound-effects, the gunfire of Bullets and Bayonets is very well managed - shades of Strauss’s Auf der jagd. The ringing clarion calls of The Naval Reserve - complete with somewhat distant chorus - brings this compendium to a terrific close.
Listening to Fennell for the first time in years I was struck by the general swiftness and knife-edge precision of his readings, the fabled Mercury sound not as fulsome or as dynamically challenging as I’d remembered. I’m pleased to say this Naxos twofer stands up very well alongside Fennell’s classic. And at this - or any other - price point, these discs are an absolute steal.
Huzzahs all round.
Dan Morgan
Huzzahs all round. 
Full track-listing:  
CD 1
Hands Across the Sea (1899) [2:50]
Semper Fidelis (1888) [2:57]
The Royal Welch Fusiliers (1929) [2:42]
Sabre and Spurs (1918) [3:16]
King Cotton (1895) [2:57]
Pathfinder of Panama (1915) [3:14]
The Liberty Bell (arr. J. Ord-Hume) (1893) [3:45]
Hail to the Spirit of Liberty (1900) [3:19]
The Black Horse Troop March (1924) [3:31]
The High School Cadets (1890) [2:35]
Daughters of Texas (1929) [3:21]
The Fairest of the Fair (1908) [3:40]
Riders for the Flag (1927) [2:38]
The Thunderer (1889) [2:53]
The Washington Post (1889) [2:43]
The Glory of the Yankee Navy (1909) [3:32]
The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896) [3:50] 
CD 2
Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (1922) [3:34]
Wisconsin Forward Forever (1917) [3:27]
Quotations I - The King of France (1895) [5:18]
Solid Men to the Front (1918) [3:59]
The Diplomat (1904) [3:24]
The Picador (1889) [2:57]
Jack Tar (1903) [2:33]
America First (March of the States) (1916) [2:28]
Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company (1924) [2:31]
The Minnesota March (1921) [3:19]
The Atlantic City Pageant March (1927) [2:39]
Sesqui-Centennial Exposition (1926) [3:39]
La Flor di Sevilla (1929) [2:41]
The Corcoran Cadets (1890) [3:09]
The National Game (1925) [3:19]
Bullets and Bayonets (1918) [3:39]
The Naval Reserve (1917) [2:24]