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Barry Kilpatrick
American Record Guide, March 2011

There is still nothing not to like about it. This collection cobbles 34 marches from all eight collections, and the accounts are wonderfully detailed. Brion…emphasizes details we have never noticed before, such as a xylophone doubling a melody, or odd accents, or a broadly swinging style in 6/8 meter. And then, of course, he gives us a thrill when he finally unleashes that pent-up enthusiasm.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, December 2010

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. 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.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, November 2010

John Philip Sousa (1854–1932) was to marches what the Strausses were to waltzes. He produced a ton of them, people loved them, and they all remain popular. The American conductor and composer, often called “The March King” (or “The American March King” to differentiate him from other well-known march composers of the time, now, ironically, almost forgotten), led several bands, including the U.S. Marine Band, The President’s Own band, and the Sousa Band. During this time, he wrote some 136 marches, many of which people can still whistle or hum from memory, as well as a flock of operettas.

OK, I hear you ask, but who actually listens to marches anymore? Well, I daresay there are more marching bands, brass bands, and concert bands in the country today than there are bands or orchestras of any other kind. Think about it: Almost every junior high, high school, and college in the land has one or more bands, and they play in classrooms, auditoriums, and athletic games practically every day of the week. Then count in the number of city, community, and fraternal bands there are across the nation, who play in park bandstands and celebratory parades every week, and the number becomes staggering. I’d be willing to bet that most symphony orchestra trombonists and rock group drummers got their start in a school band somewhere. So, Sousa, we have not forgotten you.

Maybe that’s why, too, the world’s record companies keep producing albums of Sousa’s marches, just this week my having received two such collections from two different labels. The one under consideration here is a two-disc compilation from Naxos featuring thirty-four of the composer’s best-loved tunes, played by as serious a band as you’ll find, the Royal Artillery Band of the Royal Artillery regiment in Woolwich, SE London. The Royal Artillery Band are an ensemble first formed in 1557, and which, according to the booklet notes, appears on any given day as “a symphonic wind band (one of the largest in the British army), a marching unit, or a full symphony orchestra (England’s oldest established symphony orchestra).” It’s a remarkable group.

Sousa’s Greatest Marches begins with “Hands Across the Sea” (1899), maybe not Sousa’s most-familiar piece but certainly a stirring curtain raiser. It also demonstrates the type of playing we can expect from the rest of the program: enthusiastic, energetic, yet refined, and warmly recorded. Never mind that the tempo is a tad too quick actually to march to; it’s the spirit the counts. Next is “Semper Fidelis” (1888), which the Marine Corps later adopted as their official theme song, and which does come off in genuine march time.

Among other marches of particular standing are “Saber and Spurs” (1918), with its horses and hoofbeats in military gait; the danceable melodies of “King Cotton” (1895); a fairly sedate “Liberty Bell” (1893) that enjoyed a resurgence of fame with the Monty Python players; the courtly “Black Horse Troop” (1924), with even more hoofbeats; and the zesty “Fairest of the Fair” (1908).

Disc one concludes with what are possibly Sousa’s most-celebrated creations: “The Thunderer” (1889), “The Washington Post” (1889), and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (1896), sure winners no matter how people play them, here done up quite stylishly.

Disc two contains marches only slightly less well known than those on disc one. Among the highlights are “Wisconsin Forward and Forever” (1917); the picturesque “Invincible Eagle” (1901); one of Sousa’s personal favorites, “The Diplomat” (1904); the jaunty “Jack Tar” (1903); the baseball-inspired “National Game” (1925), with its batted balls and crowd noises; and the rousing “Naval Reserve March” (1917).

What Maestro Brion lacks in adrenaline, he more than makes up for in nuance and color. There’s a reserved pluck about these performances that is hard to resist.

The recordings, made between 1999 and 2005 and selected from several previously released Naxos discs, I said earlier sound warm and inviting. There is a fine sense of air and space around the instruments, despite a degree of thickness to the sonics in some tracks, with enough distance from the listener to provide a depth and bloom to the ensemble. Dynamics are good, too, although the bass drum whacks could have been more gut thumping. Yet it’s the delicate segments that are most appealing, the highs, the triangles, the cymbals, and such. It is a generous and affectionate presentation of the music.

Blair Sanderson, October 2010

Nothing could be more direct: Sousa’s Greatest Marches delivers everything its title states, and to make sure that none of the March King’s best work is missed, two CDs are provided to deliver nearly two hours of his finest patriotic and martial music. The 34 selections cover the period from 1888 to 1927, when John Philip Sousa dominated band music in the United States, and these parade and bandstand favorites eclipsed all of his other music, including his once popular operettas, much to his frustration. Still, to have such gems as Semper Fidelis, The Liberty Bell, The Washington Post, and The Stars and Stripes Forever as a legacy is more than many composers achieve, and Sousa even went beyond that in composing over 200 works and conducting the United States Marine Band and the Sousa Band for a total of five decades. Keith Brion and the Royal Artillery Band play the marches as admirably as any band ever has, and the music is as robust and invigorating as any recording, including Sousa’s own vintage records. Considering the convenience of having so many of the marches in one package, this Naxos compilation will be an attractive choice for many listeners., September 2010

Sousa was a very inventive composer in many ways, and marches were scarcely the only sort of music he wrote...And yet Sousa’s marches are so upbeat, so enthusiastic, so, well, marchable, that having several dozen of them in one exceptionally well-played collection is really a delight. Making this set especially interesting is its mixture of the highly familiar with the almost totally unknown. Yes, The Stars and Stripes Forever is here, along with The Liberty Bell, Riders for the Flag, Semper Fidelis, The Thunderer, and The Washington Post. But so are such gems as Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Wisconsin Forward Forever, The Minnesota March (composed for the University of Minnesota football team), The Atlantic City Pageant (yes, written for the beauty pageant), and The Invincible Eagle, among others. This compilation, taken from individual CDs that Naxos has released previously, provides an excellent overview of Sousa’s greatest hits (and some lesser ones).

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group