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John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
A Sousa Celebration
Track list at end of review
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Kristjan Järvi
rec. 22-23 September 2016, Henry Wood Hall, RSNO Centre, Glasgow
Reviewed as a Studio Master download from
Pdf booklet included

Celebration is the key word here; much of Sousa’s output was intended for public occasions, Chandos continue their long-running relationship with this orchestra, and now we have Kristjan Järvi’s welcome return to the label after a break of nine years (their collaboration on Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch Mit Sieben Siegeln dates from 2007). Järvi’s superb account of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which I reviewed in 2009, was one of my Recordings of the Year. Adding to the good news, this gig extends the family’s significant involvement with the RSNO, of which Kristjan’s father, Neeme, is now Conductor Laureate.

Of the various contributors to this new release the Sousa specialist and conductor Keith Brion is probably the best known, not least for his 16-volume Naxos series devoted to this composer’s oeuvre. I much enjoyed his disc of Sousa’s Greatest Marches, recorded with the Royal Artillery Band. His skills as an arranger/editor include several pieces by Charles Ives, as played by ‘The President’s Own’ United States Marine Band under Col. Tim Foley. I reviewed that CD, another in the Naxos Wind Band Classics series, back in 2007.

As Sousa was most famous for his marches, The Washington Post seems like a good place to start. Commissioned by the newspaper’s owner for an awards ceremony, it gets a splendid outing here; the RSNO are a remarkably refined ensemble, and that’s never in doubt here, but they’re also at ease with this quintessentially American music. Indeed, Järvi’s well-judged tempi and his inherent good taste – not too much brass – augur well for the rest of this collection. And while The Thunderer might suggest another famous newspaper – The Times of London – the exact origins of Sousa’s march are unknown. This one also gets a very fluid – and fluent – performance, bringing with it echoes of old Europe.

Of the marches from this period, Semper Fidelis in particular brings to mind the music of Franz von Suppé and others of his ilk. The RSNO timps and side-drum are superbly caught here, and the recording has an unforced airiness that’s just perfect for this potentially bombastic repertoire. And although The Liberty Bell is inextricably linked to Monty Python – making me smile whenever I hear it – Järvi gives it a sophisticated air that’s anything but irreverent. That said, there’s a real sense of fun here, maestro and players clearly enjoying themselves at every turn. Meanwhile, listeners will appreciate the nicely varied programme, which seasons Sousa’s best-known fare with less familiar titbits.

Among the latter – for me, at least – are the overture and circus galop from Sousa’s final (and incomplete) operetta The Irish Dragoon. Infectiously played, this music recalls Rossini at his lithe and propulsive best. Oh, and don’t forget Meyerbeer – he’s in there too. Sousa’s Dwellers of the Western World suite, written for his world tour in 1911, doesn’t quite avoid racial stereotypes. That said, the rhythms of The Red Man are subtly done, and there’s a thrilling glimpse of the open prairie that wouldn’t disgrace Copland or Thomson.  The White Man is the builder – cue industrious hammering – and The Black Man is characterised by music of vigour and delight. Not vintage Sousa, perhaps, but well crafted and winningly played.

Sousa was also a dab hand at the waltz. Those from the unpublished Sandalphon are certainly engaging, even if they don’t always have the lightness or easy invention of their Straussian counterparts. Still, that swoony theme is delectably done, as is the element of oom-pah-pah that’s intrinsic to wind bands. The real surprise comes at the end, where the music suddenly takes flight in the most exhilarating way. I almost expected a burst of applause after that one! And while the waltzes from his operetta El Capitan are more robust than romantic, Keith Brion’s splendid orchestration gives them added bounce and brio.

And did you know Sousa did the tango, too? I simply couldn’t resist the slinky charms of The Gliding Girl, who could be my dancing partner any day. This is a lateish little number from 1912; ditto the two Humoresques on the song Swanee, from the Gershwin-Caesar revue Demi-Tasse (1920), and Kern-DeSylva’s Look for the Silver Lining, from the musical Zip, Goes a Million (1922). Although Broadway tunes, Sousa and Brion give them a rather different flavour. Christopher Hart’s B-flat cornet in the fast-flowing Swanee and the whistle and Simon Lowdon’s xylophone in the Kern are yet more smile-inducing moments in an already light-hearted collection.

Keeping the best ‘til last, Järvi gives a pretty swift account of Sousa’s signature piece, The Stars and Stripes Forever. In keeping with the rest of this album – and Keith Brion’s admirable contributions thereto – this isn’t as high octane a performance as some; that said, Janet Richardson’s spirited piccolo playing and the detailed recording make for a terrific sign-off. I’ve heard Järvi père in several ‘light’ programmes in recent years – his Chabrier and Saint-Saëns come to mind – and I’d say Kristjan has just the right touch for this rep. As for Patrick Warfield’s liner-notes, each work is identified with a bold sub-heading, which means readers don’t have to plough through acres of text to find the entry they’re looking for. A small but welcome touch.

A good selection of Sousa pieces, albeit in arrangements by other hands; lovely playing and sound.

Dan Morgan

Track list
The Washington Post (1889) [2:51] Ed. Clark McAlister
Sandalphon (1870s, rev. 1886) [8:25]
The Irish Dragoon (1915)
Overture [3:25]
Circus Galop [1:26] Ed. Loras John Schissel
The Thunderer (1889) [2:22] Orch. Keith Brion
Humoresque on ‘Swanee’ (1920) [5:08] Arr. for orchestra Keith Brion
The Invincible Eagle (1901) [3:20] Arr. for orchestra Keith Brion
Nymphalin (1880) [3:12]
On Wings of Lightning (1876) [2:04] Ed. Loras John Schissel, arr. Harold Sanford
Humoresque on ‘Look for the Silver Lining’ (1922) [4:56] Sousa’s original version combined with Ray Dvořák’s by Keith Brion
Semper Fidelis (1888) [2:22] Ed. McAlister
Dwellers of the Western World – Suite (1910) [12:31] Orch. Otto Merz
The Red Man [3:42]
The White Man [5:21]
The Black Man [3:20]
The Liberty Bell (1893) [3:15]
El Capitan (1896)
Waltzes [3:46] Orch. Keith Brion
March [2:03] Arr. Harold Sanford
The Gliding Girl (1912) [2:48] Ed. Loras John Schissel
The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896) [3:20] Arr. and adapted for full orchestra ‘in the Sousa style’ by Keith Brion and Loras John Schissel


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