Before awarding me a medal for typing the headnote above, I must confess that I pasted it in, but still had to make considerable modifications. Having listed all this choice material, I could almost end this review right here with a strong recommendation, but let me state my case first. I must admit that even just a few years ago I considered Sousa merely a good 'occasional' composer whose band music divulged a talent for melodies and colorful instrumentation, but lacked depth and variety, and in the end could only be viewed as the stuff for those interested in garish band music and little else. But, truth be told, Sousa was a master of his craft, an artist of enormous talent who probably could have scored many successes as a composer of operettas (he did write some) and instrumental music in various genres – maybe of serious instrumental music – if he had not felt such a strong calling to serve his country, in particular to write inspiring patriotic and nationalistic music. I would delve into Sousa's biography here to prove my point, but most who know anything about the composer are aware of his patriotic persona.
In this Naxos collection, the listener is treated to most of his best-known marches (the Washington Post, The Liberty Bell and a few others are missing, but will probably come later in the series), as well as music from other areas of his output. The performances are consistently excellent here: try The Thunderer, or The Aviators, or the leadoff piece Hands Across the Sea. Sousa is never less than compelling in the band music genre: his orchestration is brilliant and imaginative and his sense for form and drama is masterful. Moreover, he had that uncanny ability to write tunes that struck the ear as familiar upon first hearing, the kind that seemed as though they always existed.
This set contains many gems that feature familiar and not-so-familiar melodies, such as King Cotton, The Invincible Eagle, The Fairest of the Fair, and of course two marches so etched in our psyches that virtually everybody knows them – Semper Fidelis and The Stars and Stripes Forever. Put simply, this can arguably be dubbed the ultimate Sousa collection. Period.
The London-based Royal Artillery Band plays with the same idiomatic spirit of most good American bands in this repertory, and their leader here, Keith Brion, interprets the music with a real feel for Sousa's colorful style. The notes are informative and the sound is excellent. For those interested in band or wind music, this set is essential; for others this is at least very intriguing.
Copyright © 2004, Robert Cummings