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John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
A Sousa Celebration
Royal Scottish National Orchestra/Kristjan Järvi
rec. Royal Concert Hall, RSNO Centre, Glasgow, Scotland, September 2016

John Philip Sousa is, of course, best known as America’s March King, and most of his music was written for the bands that he led. He also wrote for the theatre, too, and this Chandos collection gives us a very useful survey of what he was capable of.

Very welcome it is, too. There’s something slightly strange, but also rather wonderful, about hearing this music played by a full-on symphony orchestra (rather than, say, a brass band).  In fact, the whole thing sounds rather more classy than Sousa really has any right to be!  Of course, in most of the marches the bulk of the action still takes place in the brass and percussion, but the presence of a full string section adds a whole layer of colour that could otherwise be totally absent, and it is all to the gain.

To be fair, much of this is due to the people who have arranged them (see details below), and it’s ever-so-slightly dishonest of Chandos not to make more of the fact that many of these tracks are only heard by an orchestra because they have been thus arranged by someone who came later. In fact, you don’t find that out until you’ve bought the disc and get to look at the detailed booklet inside.

However, that’s by no means a huge obstacle, and once you make your piece with it you’ll find a huge amount to enjoy. In fact, the thing that struck me again and again as I listened to the disc was how close Sousa is to the gemütlich sound that we associate with Imperial Vienna, something that conductor Kristjan Järvi also points out in the booklet notes.  Repeatedly, I kept on making comparisons in my head to the Strauss family.  The Washington Post sounds like a march by Josef, while even The Liberty Bell comes closer to one of Johann’s polkas when it’s played like this.  Big sections of Sandalphon had me thinking of Waldteufel’s Skaters’ Waltz and, even if its sound world is inevitably different, you can easily imaging the numbers from The Irish Dragoon fitting into a Viennese operetta.

The Humoresques, on the other hand, feel as though they could have been lifted from a popular West End show, such is their hummable spark and slight sense of the far off.  The extra-musical effects (see for yourself!) sound daft but fun, and the low brass ham things up brilliantly in Look for the Silver Lining.  Elsewhere there is a lovely sense of rum-ti-tum in marches like The Invincible Eagle, but they are always carried with a lovely sense of forward momentum.  Nymphalin is utterly beguiling, and if we might not like the racial stereotyping of Dwellers of the Western World then we can still admit that it contains good music.

The RSNO have ventured into the not-at-all-dissimilar worlds of Suppé and Fučik on Chandos with Neeme Järvi, and I’m told that he was lined up for this recording too, before ill health forced him to stand aside.  Getting Järvi fils to fill the gap was a coup, however, and he fills his father’s shoes with aplomb.  It’s music he seems to have developed a bit of an affinity for, and he doesn’t hang around!  The tempi for the marches are swift, almost (but not quite) to the point of rushing, and he takes a pretty nippy approach to many of the other pieces too.  If he doesn't quite have his father’s bandmaster credentials, however, then he still comes pretty close, and he makes the music breathe organically, allowing the full gamut of orchestral sound to flow through every ounce of space and to create a sound of great sophistication.

It goes without saying that the orchestra are with him every step of the way.  They’ve almost developed into specialists in this sort of repertoire: lightish music that’s on the fringes of the repertoire but that deserves a wider hearing, and they’re as convincing advocates for Sousa as they were for Suppé and Fučik.  The recording is lovely, too, not only because of the predictable excellence of the Chandos engineers, but also because of the RSNO’s new home and recording studio in Glasgow, which adds a whole layer of warmth and comfort around the sound.

So this is great fun, something to make you reassess Sousa as a composer, and also to make you grateful for the joy of a jolly good tune.

Simon Thompson

Previous reviews: Dan Morgan ~ Dave Billinge

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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