Tchaikovsky / 1812 Overture / Reiner – The Best Sound Here Is Everything But the 1812

More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Reviews and Commentaries for the 1812 Overture

The real stars here are NOT the 1812, but the three coupling works, which demonstrate, on this copy at least, The Real Power of the Orchestra. The remarkably rich, Tubey Magical and oh-so-rosiny Living Stereo strings and powerful, dynamic brass make this a real demo quality orchestral heavyweight.

Lizst’s Mephisto Waltz, Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides Overture, and the Tragic Overture by Brahms are the Must Own 36 minutes worth of music on the record.

A rare and wonderful early Living Stereo Shaded Dog pressing containing an outstanding performance from Reiner and the CSO on everything but the 1812.

Say what?

Yes, it’s true. After hearing the amazing Decca pressing with Alwyn conducting (currently on the site at $400 and worth every penny of it but with completely different coupling works) we knew early on that Reiner and the CSO were simply not competitive in terms of performance, and the RCA engineers also failed to capture the deep bass of the organ on their pressing.

What we were impressed with were the three other works, all played with verve and technical skill and as enjoyable as any music you can find on this site. Go to youtube to listen to them if you are not familiar with the works. All of them belong in a serious music collection, and these recordings (and our Hot Stamper pressings) do them proud.

The Sound

The record is cut very clean, with natural string tone and huge three-dimensional stage. There is almost no trace of the compression/congestion problems that plague vintage recordings like this.

Side one was clearly the best of any copy we have ever played (not that many we should confess), with excellent extension on the highs and almost no trace of smear.

On side two my notes for Mephisto read: Big and balanced and 3-D, with a lively top end. The Living Stereo strings are not too lush. They have lovely texture and dynamic energy. It’s a colorful work and needs this kind of sound to capture the imagination of the listener.

The second work on this side, the Brahms, is good but not quite as good as the Liszt above. Reiner plays it with great power.

TAS List

Harry Pearson put this record on his TAS List of Super Discs, and with good reason: it’s wonderful! It’s also one of the rarest and hardest to find recordings in the entire Living Stereo catalog.

Being on the TAS List doesn’t guarantee great sound, but Better Records does. If you don’t think a record sounds as good as we’ve described, we’ll always happily take it back and refund your money. Good luck getting ol’ Harry to send you a check when the TAS-approved pressings you pick up don’t deliver.

And now that the list is full of awful Classic Records pressings one has to wonder why anyone would put much stock in it.

Table Setup

This is an excellent record for adjusting tracking weight, VTA, azimuth and the like. Classical music is really the ultimate test for proper turntable/arm/cartridge setup (and evaluation). A huge and powerful recording such as this quickly separates the men from the boys stereo-wise. Recordings of this quality are the reason there are $10,000+ front ends in the first place. You don’t need to spend that kind of money to play this record, but if you do, this is the record that will show you what you got for your hard-earned dough.

Ideally you would want to work your setup magic at home with this record, then take it to a friend’s house and see if you can achieve the same results on his system. I’ve done this sort of thing for years. (Sadly, not so much anymore; nobody I know can play records like these the way we can. Playing and critically evaluating records all day, every day, year after year, you get pretty good at it. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.)

Properly set VTA is especially critical on this record, as it is on most classical recordings. The smallest change will dramatically affect the timbre, texture and harmonic information of the strings, as well as the rest of instruments of the orchestra.


Side One

1812 Overture (Tchaikovsky) approximately 15 minutes
Fingal’s Cave (Mendelssohn) approximately 10 minutes

Side Two

Mephisto Waltz (Liszt) approximately 12 minutes
Tragic Overture (Brahms) approximately 14 minutes

Mephisto Waltz No. 2

The Mephisto Waltzes – Liszt’s Devilish Dances

Each Mephisto Waltz is a devilish, whirling dance, showing off Franz Liszt’s dazzling mastery of energy.

They’re named after the devil, Mephisto, in the German Faust legend. Mephisto Waltz No. 1 is by far the most famous, with pianists the world over using it as a vehicle to show off their speed and skill.

Liszt’s super-virtuoso musical style is brilliantly displayed in these pieces. They also reflect his fascination with the devil and program music (music which describes something).

Liszt wrote four Mephisto Waltzes in total throughout his life. He composed the first one in 1859, and the other three near the end of his life in the 1880s.

He didn’t manage to finish the Fourth one before he died, but a playable version was published in the 1950s.

Because he wrote them at different times during his life, they each have a distinctive sound. The first is more conventional, with breakneck speeds and lots of complex patterns. Advanced pianists only!

But the later ones are typical of Liszt’s more experimental music.

They’re not nearly as difficult to perform. They focus much more on trying out new and interesting twists on conventional music theory instead of just blindly showing off.

Mephisto Waltz No. 2

The second of the waltzes came roughly 20 years after the first, in 1881. Of course, Liszt had changed a lot in two decades, so this waltz reflects his mature talents.

Full of devilish chords and dark sounds, it stretches the boundaries of harmony. It even looks forward to some of the bizarre things which composers would start to do in the 20th century.

Liszt also wrote an orchestral version of this waltz, which uses the colorful palette of the orchestra to really bring this passionate and frenetic dance alive.

From the Favorite Classical Composers website (highly recommended reading)

Tragic Overture

Shakespeare famously asked, “what’s in a name?” In relation to Brahms’ Tragic Overture, one could answer that a tragic piece without that name in the title would sound just as taut and elemental. Inasmuch as Brahms’ motive for writing this work was nothing more imperative than wanting to follow his relatively jolly Academic Festival Overture with an emotional antithesis, there is no reason nor need to read more into the sinewy music – something like a grim personal experience or perhaps a literary program – than meets the ear. It has been suggested, though not verified, that the Tragic was planned as a prelude to a new production of Goethe’s Faust. A tantalizing idea, if out of character for Brahms, but one that probably arose because of Brahms’ having written to his friend Simrock that “I could not refuse my melancholy nature the satisfaction of composing an overture to a tragedy.” In describing the two overtures to another friend, he said, “One of them weeps, the other laughs.”

In 1880, the year of the two near-twin overtures, Brahms, with his first two symphonies behind him, was basking in an accumulating celebrity. In fact the Academic Festival Overture represents the composer’s musical appreciation to the University of Breslau for having conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Having duly conveyed his ebullient thanks by tossing a student cap into the air, Dr. Brahms donned his Philosopher’s hat, furrowed his brow, and set a steely gaze on musical matters of deep seriousness.

The Tragic Overture opens with full orchestra presenting two chordal exclamations, following which, with timpani vibrating ominously, unison strings intone the austere main theme. A simple, pathetic march idea beginning with a dotted figure immediately answers the strings, and this material, plus an onward rushing triplet figure and finally a comforting major-key melody, constitute the Overture’s materials. The magnificent energy that presses through the outer portions of the piece has a defiant strength whose force is heightened by a superb section in which the poignant little march idea, now at a slower tempo, defines the “Tragic” of the Overture even more potently than all the muscular thrust before and after it.

The Tragic Overture may not weep, but it does have an emotional resonance that is powerfully affecting. — Orrin Howard

Fingal’s Cave

Felix Mendelssohn once stated, “It is in pictures, ruins, and natural surroundings that I find the most music.” Perhaps no work and no surrounding were as equally matched for compositional success as Mendelssohn’s trip to Scotland and the writing of his Hebrides Overture. Mendelssohn was a child prodigy who came from a well-off family, thereby enabling him to travel often. He greatly enjoyed his various sojourns throughout Europe, and the 1829 walking tour of Scotland with his friend, Karl Klingemann, was no exception. Mendelssohn was only twenty years old when he and Klingemann traveled to the Hebrides Islands, off the west coast of Scotland, and later to Fingal’s Cave, on the Island of Staffa. After seeing the stunning scenery in the Hebrides, he composed the opening bars of his overture, sending it to his sister Fanny with the following note, “In order to make you understand how extraordinarily The Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.” The following day he and Klingemann ventured to Fingal’s Cave (named after the character Fingal, from a third-century Gaelic tale), having to row there in a skiff, and sat at the mouth of the awe-inspiring, sea-level, basalt-rock formation and marveled. Mendelssohn was dreadfully seasick on his trip to the cave, but was able to appreciate the magnitude of the formation nonetheless. Klingemann wrote that Mendelssohn “[got] along better with the sea as an artist than as a human being with a stomach.”

Mendelssohn completed the first draft of his Hebrides Overture in Rome, toward the end of 1830. He was unhappy with his first attempt and continued to revise the work for the next three years. Of particular distress to Mendelssohn was the middle section about which he said, “The forte, D Major middle section is very silly and the entire so-called development tastes more of counterpoint than of whale oil, seagulls and salted cod.” Whale oil notwithstanding, the work premiered on May 14, 1832, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Mendelssohn was still not happy with the work, and revised it further until it was finally published in 1833. The two titles (Hebrides and Fingal’s Cave) provide an interesting dilemma – it is believed that a publisher added the Fingal’s Cave title, thinking it would be a more recognizable name than The Hebrides. Further complicating matters, it seems the score and orchestral parts contain differing names, some indicating Fingal and some Hebrides.

Mendelssohn’s work was a new type of overture which emerged during the nineteenth-century, referred to as the concert overture. Concert overtures are not drawn from a stage work or opera, but rather, are stand-alone works to be programmed as an overture in a concert hall. Other composers of famous concert overtures include Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms.

Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture is not programmatic, in the sense that it does not follow a narrative or tell a story; but it is thoroughly evocative of the sea and the scenery Mendelssohn experienced during his time in the Hebrides and Fingal’s Cave. The opening motive that Mendelssohn sketched and sent to his sister after viewing the Hebrides, is a mysterious, arpeggiated fragment outlining the key of b minor. The motive is repeated several times, rising higher and higher. It begins in the lower depths of the orchestra for maximum drama, with the bassoon, viola, and cello receiving the melodic material. As the theme rises, the violins take over, while the lower voices begin an undulating pattern of sixteenth notes that is present throughout most of the work, representing the ebb and flow of the sea, while dramatic crescendos and sforzandi allude to crashing sea waves upon rocks.

The second theme is a more sprawling and soaring melody in the major mode, and as the always quotable Sir Donald Francis Tovey stated, is “the greatest melody Mendelssohn ever wrote.” This second theme is again introduced by the lower instruments (bassoons and celli), maintaining the mysterious nautical tone of the overture. The opening motive is later transformed to a martial rhythm in the orchestra before beginning a somewhat jauntier section filled with dotted rhythms and staccato statements. This section begins with very soft iterations of the opening fragment answered by militaristic figures from the winds. It then modifies and truncates the opening motive into short staccato statements passed throughout the orchestra before the clarinet returns the peaceful ambiance with its statement of the expansive second theme, leading directly into the extended coda. The work ends with a repeated, haunting statement of the opening motive in the clarinet, passed onto the flute that has the last word with its ascending b minor arpeggio, accompanied by pizzicato strings.

Lori Newman

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