John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
Music for Wind Band - 14
March of the Royal Trumpets (1892) [4:08]
The American Maid: Overture (Overture, The Glass Blowers) (1909) [5:47]
The Triton Medley -- March (1892) [1:27]
Listen to My Tale of Woe -- Humoresque (1888) [2:37]
The Lambs -- March (1914) [2:04]
Esprit de Corps -- March (1888) [2:39]
El Capitan and His Friends -- Suite (1896-8) [17:00]
The Circumnavigators Club -- March (1931) [1:49]
The Loyal Legion -- March (1890) [2:43]
The International Congress -- Fantasy (1876) [24:37]
Central Band of the RAF/Keith Brion
rec. RAF Northolt, London, February 2012
NAXOS 8.559730 [64:54]
The music of the "March King," John Philip Sousa, mightn't seem to allow for a variety of sound profiles; but, as in any other music, the mesh of conductor's and players' individual and collective styles can produce distinctive results. Frederick Fennell's Eastman Wind Orchestra (Mercury - review) has long stood as the recorded benchmark: a large-scale yet lightweight sonority with seemingly infinite desks of clarinets blended into a military-style homogeneity, rendered with alert rhythmic address. On the other hand, my first extended exposure to this music, save for the occasional one-off, came via the Czechoslovak Brass Orchestra (Supraphon, licensed Stateside to Nonesuch): a smaller, sometimes endearingly tubby ensemble, disciplined and enthusiastic.
Naxos Sousa series offers the Central Band of the RAF, an authentic military band. Its sound, slightly more compact than Fennell's, shares its alertness and polish, and conductor Keith Brion has a nice feel for textural contrasts. In the March of the Royal Trumpets, which opens the program, the sound is layered in a way one doesn't necessarily associate with Sousa: important musical strands register clearly within open sonorities; even the brilliant tutti statement of the Trio is laid out with restraint.
The most substantial work here is The International Congress, a fantasy commissioned for the Philadelphia International Exposition of 1876, "a grand medley of national anthems, folk music, classical music and patriotic airs," as per the conductor's program note. The score includes the requisite lively tuttis, set off by lighter-weight, reed-dominated passages, some in waltz time. A number of the more familiar anthems -- America, Deutschland über Alles, and the Czarist Russian anthem -- are introduced as thoughtful, inward chorales. For the finish, The Star-Spangled Banner is insinuated into the bass line before emerging into a full statement, counterposed with the Tannhäuser obbligato -- though I'd probably not have made the latter association without having read it in the notes. The overall spirit of the piece is light and celebratory.
El Capitan and His Friends sounds like an animated television series, but it's a suite of three short potpourris Sousa compiled from his operettas. The music ranges over a pleasing variety of styles, but the composer apparently lacked the structural sense to provide a convincing arc. The chipper El Capitan sequence concludes with almost the entire eponymous march, making too-final an ending with two movements to go. Next comes a light, airy sequence from The Charlatan, whose serious closing chorale seems to want further rounding-off. Finally, the medley from The Bride Elect (sic) includes a swaggering march that rolls to an emphatic finish - only to be followed by still another march!
Brion's notes don't clarify the double designation of a 1909 overture as the concert overture The Glass Blowers and as the Overture to the operetta The American Maid. In any case, it's an engaging piece. In the first section, deliberately off-kilter scansions enliven the basic triple time; later, a sustained oboe note expands into a brief cadenza, which ushers in a lyrical passage; several marziale passages, not unexpectedly, intervene. The "humoresque" Listen to My Tale of Woe is uncharacteristically plaintive and low-key, picking up gradually with the appearance of a staccato trumpet tune, contrasted in its turn with a busier, driving Trio section.
The rest of the program comprises - you guessed it - marches, of which only 1888's Esprit de Corps is likely to be familiar to most. The brief introduction and minor-key opening paragraph are vaguely ominous, but the second theme reverts to the major, and to Sousa's typical "upbeat" mood. In the dotted rhythms of the Trio – over-dotted by the previously cited Czechs, to clumsy effect - the execution maintains lift and momentum.
Elsewhere, the duple-time pieces have a jaunty stride, while the 6/8 numbers are sprightly, and Brion rouses the customary cheerful din in the climaxes. The dotted figures of The Circumnavigators Club, even in tutti, maintain a "French"-sounding lift.
How much Sousa you want, or need, in your collection is up to you; even I, an unabashed fan, find the scope of the Naxos series intimidating. If you just want to dip into it, this brightly recorded installment is as good a place as any to do so.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.