September 30, 2010


John Philip Sousa: Sousa’s Greatest Marches. Royal Artillery Band conducted by Keith Brion. Naxos. $17.99 (2 CDs).

Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Shakespeare Overtures, Volume 1—Julius Caesar; The Taming of the Shrew; Antony and Cleopatra; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tragedy of Coriolanus; Twelfth Night. West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andrew Penny. Naxos. $8.99.

Debussy: Orchestral Works, Volume 4—Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (excerpts); Khamma: Légende dansée; Le roi Lear; L’enfant prodigue (excerpts). Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Naxos. $8.99.

     Thirty-four Sousa marches can come perilously close to being too much of a good thing – and in fact it is not the best possible idea to listen to the new Naxos two-CD set of these marches straight through. Sousa was a very inventive composer in many ways, and marches were scarcely the only sort of music he wrote. But he was known, of course, as the March King, and if Keith Brion’s bouncy and idiomatic performances confirm that designation, they also show the inherent weakness of the march form in large doses: similar length, similar structure, bright keys nearly all the time, and (after a while) the sense that, for all Sousa’s thematic skill and brilliance of orchestration, enough is enough. 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). It helps to be in the right frame of mind when listening to this recording: no cynicism, and a bright and sunny attitude toward the United States and the future. And it helps to hear the music in modest doses. Those who do so will find themselves marching off with renewed energy.

     Some of the little-known Shakespeare Overtures by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968) are energetic, too, and all 11 of them show the composer’s continuing fascination with Shakespeare’s works. The six that have just been released in fine performances by Andrew Penny and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra were written as early as 1930 (The Taming of the Shrew) and as late as 1947 (both Antony and Cleopatra and The Tragedy of Coriolanus). Rather than trying to portray all the events of a play, Castelnuovo-Tedesco employed large orchestral forces to highlight specific scenes or dialogue. Thus, he offers pervasive fanfares in Julius Caesar, lyricism in The Taming of the Shrew, and a single leitmotif in The Tragedy of Coriolanus – appropriate for a play whose hero is doomed by his single-minded nobility. Listeners will find little in common with Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture here. But they will inevitably think of Mendelssohn when listening to Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture, for the later composer pays tribute to the earlier with an opening featuring repeated woodwind-and-horn chords. All these works show skillful orchestration (sometimes including two harps plus celesta and piano), wit, fine pacing, interesting themes and a strong sense of involvement in the Shakespeare plays that inspired them. Indeed, it helps to know the plays to get these overtures’ full effects. These are certainly works that deserve to be better known.

     There is a bit of Debussy music for a Shakespeare play – King Lear – on the fourth fine Naxos CD of the French composer’s orchestral music, with Orchestre National de Lyon conducted by Jun Märkl. Debussy intended to create incidental music for the whole play, but completed only two numbers and did not orchestrate them – that was done by J. Roger-Ducasse. The short fanfare and sleep sequence are evocative elements of what might have been. The more-substantial works on this CD are Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, which is well known, and Khamma, which is not. The first of these works is represented here by préludes, fanfares and symphonic fragments, which present episodic elements from a piece once placed on the Catholic Index of banned works because of its homoerotic nature. The music is typical of Debussy in its atmospheric tone painting. Khamma, a “danced legend” set in Egypt, has a number of interesting orchestral touches, both in the portion orchestrated by the composer and in the latter part, whose orchestration is by Charles Koechlin. Written in 1911-1912, it has some of the exoticism of Stravinsky’s contemporary Rite of Spring, but none of the Russian composer’s tonally and rhythmically challenging elements. It is effective scene painting, if not an especially compelling work. The final piece on this disc, The Prodigal Son, was a very early work – written in 1884, when the composer was 22 – that was revised more than two decades later. The work as a whole is a cantata; Märkl here conducts a Cortège et air de danse portraying a pleasant pastoral scene and providing a delicate conclusion to this CD.

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