Our Favorite Tchaikovsky 1812 – Alwyn on Decca

More Peter llyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

1812 / Marche Slave / Alwyn

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A distinguished member of the Better Records Orchestral Music Hall of Fame.

A BEYOND White Hot Quadruple Plus side one – hear Tchaicovsky’s 1812 in Demo Disc sound. This is the most exciting and beautifully played 1812 we know of, with the best sound ever to boot on this copy. This is an exceptional Decca remastering of a superb Golden Age recording on very good vinyl.

The WHOMP FACTOR on this side one has to be heard to be believed. If you’ve got the woofers for it this record is going to rock your world!

Strings Are Key

The lower strings are rich and surrounded by lovely hall space. This is not a sound one hears on record often enough and it is glorious when a pressing as good as this one can make that sound clear to you.

The string sections from top to bottom are shockingly rich and sweet — this pressing is yet another wonderful example of what the much-lauded Decca recording engineers (Kenneth Wilkinson in this case) were able to capture on analog tape all those years ago.

The 1958 master has been transferred brilliantly using “modern” cutting equipment (from 1970, not the low-rez junk they’re forced to make do with these days), giving you, the listener, sound that only the best of both worlds can offer. 

Side One (1812 Overture)

Off the charts, the best we have ever heard this work sound. Big, rich, clean and clear barely begins to do this side justice. The strings are wonderfully textured and not screechy in the slightest.

The brass is big and clear and weighty, just the way it should be, as that is precisely the sound you hear in the concert hall, especially that part about being clear: live music is more than anything else completely clear. We should all strive for that sound in our reproduction of orchestral music.

Not many recordings capture the brass this well. (Ansermet on London comes to mind of course but many of his performances leave much to be desired. Here Alwyn is on top of his game with performances that are definitive.)

Here’s what you get on this side one:

The most dynamic sound we have ever heard for any side of this album.

The most weight and power we have ever heard for the 1812, and as you can imagine, for this work to have the kind of power this pressing has was nothing less than a THRILL to hear. Who knew? Until we played this copy, not us!

The most depth and space we have ever heard on this album.

To earn our coveted Three Plus (OR BETTER) rating here at Better Records all you have to do is be the best copy we’ve ever played. Just be right in every way (or almost every way; no record can be perfect, but some, such as this one, seem to us to get pretty darn close).

Side Two (Marche Slave/Capriccio Italien)

Similar sound to side one, but the differences will be noticeable, and we encourage you to listen for them.

Heavy Vinyl

You can be pretty sure of two things when you hear a record of this quality: one, the original won’t sound as good, having been cut on cruder equipment.

And two, no modern recutting of the tapes (by the likes of Speakers Corner for example, but you can substitute any company you care to name) could begin to capture this kind of natural orchestral sound.

I have never heard a Heavy Vinyl pressing begin to do what this record is doing. The Decca we have here may be a budget reissue pressing, but it was mastered by real Decca engineers, pressed in England on high quality vinyl, from fairly fresh tapes (twelve years old, not fifty years old!), then mastered about as well as a record can be mastered. The sound is, above all, REAL and BELIEVABLE.

The brass has weight, the top extends beautifully for those glorious cymbal crashes, the hall is huge and the staging very three-dimensional — there is practically nothing to fault in the sound of either side.

Our Story from Many Years Ago

On well-known works such as these we started by pulling out every performance on every label we had in our backroom and playing them one after the other. Most never made it to the half-minute mark. Compressor distortion or inner groove overcutting at the climax of the 1812? Forget it; onto the trade-in pile you go.

A few days went by while we were cleaning and listening to the hopefuls. We then proceeded to track down more of the pressings we had liked in our preliminary round of listening. At the end we had a good-sized pile of LPs that we thought shootout-worthy, pressings that included various Decca and London LPs.

1812 Overture

Tchaikovsky cranked out the 1812 Overture in six weeks, cutting his imagination loose with every note and theme designed to tug at Russian heartstrings. And although the most celebrated section of the work is inevitably Tchaikovsky’s flamboyant, proto-cinematic finale, its opening passage is equally spectacular – albeit spectacularly understated.

Needing to ground the music in some fundamental truths about the Russian mind and spirit, Tchaikovsky opens by recalling a soulful Orthodox hymn, Troparion of the Holy Cross. A lesser composer might have sentimentalised the harmonies, but Tchaikovsky places this objet trouvé delicately on four violas and eight cellos, like an ethereal and wistful sound borrowed from the memory bank of history.

And now two things have become clear – that the 1812 Overture is better than Tchaikovsky realised and, despite the indignities and abuse it has suffered in the name of entertainment, his score is robustly constructed and has maintained its compositional integrity.

Because the opening sets the scene so powerfully, Tchaikovsky has access-all-areas to go anywhere musically as he begins to portray the shattering impact of the French invasion on his country. A Russian folk dance, At The Door, At My Door, trumpets national pride; pride that is rocked by the first appearance of The Marseillaise, characterised as mocking and provocative, which Tchaikovsky shoots down with five strategically aimed cannon shots.

In a late, great symphony like his Fifth or Pathétique No.6, Tchaikovsky’s melodic invention rises to the surface as his themes are combined in counterpoint: polarised logics of the symphonic argument made to coexist or not, and Tchaikovsky’s genius for eloquent counterpoint is woven into the fabric of the 1812 Overture at a deep structural level too.

With the battle gathering force, another Russian theme emerges, God Save The Tsar!, which he manoeuvres into a contrapuntal skirmish with The Marseillaise: two nations fighting it out in music, the composer never?allowing the contour of one theme to nestle too cosily against its adversary. Enemy lines are kept tautly demarcated. A plunging, descending string line symbolises the Russian retreat; cannon shots and cathedral bells peel over a victorious roar of God Save The Tsar! from the orchestra.

So what are the lessons of the 1812 Overture, much loved by an eager public but often mocked by musicians who play it, and even by its own composer? Perhaps that the person who wrote a piece of music cannot be trusted to give a reasoned opinion on it. Tchaikovsky failed to realise that it is impossible to take a piece back, or impose a view upon it retrospectively, once it leaves the composer’s desk. The material with which you once shared an intimate one-to-one relationship is in the public domain. It’s gone.

But here’s an intriguing concluding idea. Manfred Honeck, principal conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (and a Tchaikovsky obsessive) remarked that most conductors play the March section of the Pathétique Symphony too triumphantly, when Tchaikovsky meant it to sound ambiguous and questioning. There’s nothing ambiguous about the 1812 Overture of course; could that be why Tchaikovsky couldn’t comprehend the forces he had unleashed? For the rest of us, the 1812 is to be enjoyed in all its noisy, vulgar splendor.

Classicfm

Marche Slave

For the Marche, Tchaikovsky drew upon folk materials of the strongest Slavic character, beginning with the dirge-like main theme taken from a Serbian folk song. In the agitated, dynamic middle section, the composer quotes the Russian national anthem, “God Save the Czar,” a theme which also figures prominently in the 1812 Overture. Russians hearing the Marche in 1876 could hardly have failed to respond to Tchaikovsky’s fervent emotionalism as conveyed by his orchestral brilliance, and the piece was, of course, an immediate success.

Orrin Howard

Capriccio Italien

Tchaikovsky possessed a remarkable talent for instrumentation, instinctively scoring his works to obtain a maximum variety of color and the widest possible range of tonal effects. His “Capriccio Italien”, vibrant with the raw colors of its Italian song and dance rhythms, is one of his most popular works and shows the composer’s complete mastery of orchestration. Its music passes vigorously from the opening trumpet call (echoes of the Cuirassiers) through a slightly melancholy phase to a climax of power and brilliance reminiscent of the popular Italian dance, the Tarantella.

From liner notes

Kenneth Wilkinson

Decca was an early adopter of the LP album, which put it ahead of its direct competitor EMI. The company was also an early exponent of stereophonic recording. Wilkinson would make the move to stereo recordings for Decca in April 1958, but until then he remained the engineer with the monaural recording team (for a time there were parallel recording teams) because mono was considered the more important release. In the early 1950s, together with Roy Wallace (1927–2007) and Haddy, he developed the Decca tree spaced microphone array used for stereo orchestral recordings. Decca began to use this for recordings in May 1954 [the month and year I was born!] at Victoria Hall in Geneva, a venue Wilkinson did not record in. He preferred recording in London and Paris although he also recorded in Amsterdam, Bayreuth, Chicago, Copenhagen, Rome, and Vienna.

Wilkinson discussed the use of the Decca tree in an interview with Michael H. Gray in 1987.

You set up the Tree just slightly in front of the orchestra. The two outriggers, again, one in front of the first violins, that’s facing the whole orchestra, and one over the cellos. We used to have two mikes on the woodwind section – they were directional mikes, 56’s in the early days. You’d see a mike on the tympani, just to give it that little bit of clarity, and one behind the horns. If we had a harp, we’d have a mike trained on the harp. Basically, we never used too many microphones. I think they’re using too many these days.

Wilkinson’s method of selecting recording venues was recounted in an article on concert hall orchestral sound written by the conductor Denis Vaughan in 1981:

I have recorded in many halls throughout Europe and America and have found that halls built mainly of brick, wood and soft plaster, which are usually older halls, always produce a good natural warm sound. Halls built with concrete and hard plaster seem to produce a thin hard sound and always a lack of warmth and bass. Consequently when looking for halls to record in I always avoid modern concrete structures.

Wilkinson went on to engineer at hundreds of recording sessions. He was said to have worked with more than 150 conductors. He was the engineer most responsible for Richard Itter’s Lyrita recordings (which Decca produced). Itter always requested Wilkinson as engineer, calling him “a wizard with mikes.”

Wilkinson’s stereo recordings with the conductor Charles Gerhardt (including a series of Reader’s Digest recordings and the RCA Classic Film Scores series) and the producer John Culshaw made his name and reputation known to record reviewers and audiophiles. His legacy was extended by the fact that he trained every Decca engineer from 1937 onwards.

Wilkinson, always called “Wilkie” in the music business, was known as a straight-talking man, interested only in the quality of the work. The Decca producer Ray Minshull (1934–2007) recalled Wilkinson’s methods in an interview with Jonathan Valin in March 1993:

Everyone loved and respected Wilkie, but during a session he could be exacting when it came to small details. He would prowl the recording stage with a cigarette – half-ash – between his lips, making minute adjustments in the mike set-up and in the orchestral seating. Seating arrangement was really one of the keys to Wilkie’s approach and he would spend a great deal of time making sure that everyone was located just where he wanted them to be, in order for the mikes to reflect the proper balances.

Of course, most musicians had a natural tendency to bend toward the conductor as they played. If such movement became excessive, Wilkie would shoot out onto the stage and chew the erring musician out before reseating him properly. He wanted the musicians to stay exactly where he had put them. He was the steadiest of engineers, the most painstaking and the most imaginative. In all of his sessions, he never did the same thing twice, making small adjustments in mike placement and balances to accord with his sense of the sonic requirements of the piece being played.

Among Wilkinson’s favourite recordings was Britten’s War Requiem. This was recorded in January 1963 at one of Wilkinson’s favourite venues, Kingsway Hall, with Culshaw as the producer. Among other recordings engineered by Wilkinson were Wagner’s Parsifal recorded live at Bayreuth in 1951, of which the critic Andrew Porter wrote, “…the most moving and profound of spiritual experiences … Decca have recorded, superbly, a superb performance”, and Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique with Sir Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in May 1972 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Krannert Center.

Wilkinson retired from Decca when the company was taken over by the PolyGram group in 1980. He made no free-lance recordings. His work was released on Lyrita and Reader’s Digest records (as mentioned above) and RCA Records with recordings licensed through Decca. His recordings were characterised by the producer Tam Henderson in an appreciation: “The most remarkable sonic aspect of a Wilkinson orchestral recording is its rich balance, which gives full measure to the bottom octaves, and a palpable sense of the superior acoustics of the venues he favored, among them London’s Walthamstow Assembly Hall and The Kingsway Hall of revered memory”.

On retiring, Wilkinson received a special gold disc produced by Decca with extracts of his recordings. He received three Grammys for engineering: 1973, 1975, and 1978. He also received an audio award from Hi-Fi magazine in 1981 and the Walter Legge Award in 2003 “…for extraordinary contribution to the field of recording classical music.”

Telarc

Don’t expect the kind of bass you hear on the Telarc 1812 on this pressing. Of course Telarc can’t do much else right — dynamics I suppose, for what that’s worth — which means their version is not remotely competitive with this one.

Telarc makes clean, modern sounding records. To these ears they sound much like a good CD. If that’s your sound you can save yourself a lot of money avoiding vintage Golden Age recordings, especially the ones we sell. They’re much more expensive and rarely as quiet, but — again, to these ears — the colors and textures of real instruments seems to come to life in their grooves, and in practically no others.

We include in this modern group analog labels such as Reference, Sheffield, Chesky, Athena and the like. Having heard hundreds of amazing vintage pressings, I find it hard to take them the least bit seriously at this stage of the game. Twenty years ago, maybe. But twenty years is a long time, especially in the world of audio.

Classic Records

The Classic on heavy vinyl (LSC 2241) is lean and modern sounding. No early Living Stereo pressing sounds like it in our experience, and we can only thank goodness for that. If originals and early reissues did sound more like the Classic pressings, my guess is that few would collect them and practically no one would put much sonic stock in them.

Apparently most audiophiles (including audiophile record reviewers) have never heard a classical recording of the quality of a good original pressing (or good ’60s or ’70s reissue). If they had Classic Records would have gone out of business immediately after producing their first three Living Stereo titles, all of which were dreadful and recognized and identified as such by us way back in 1994.

I’m not sure why the rest of the audiophile community was so easily fooled — to this very day! There are dozens on the TAS List for Pete’s sake — but I can say that we weren’t, at least when it came to their classical releases. (We do admit to having made plenty of mistaken judgments about their jazz and rock records, and we have the We Was Wrong entries on the site to prove it.)