More of the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Reviews and Commentaries for the 1812 Overture
More than ten years ago, 2010 or thereabouts I’m guessing, we felt we were ready to do a shootout for Tchaikovsky’s famous 1812 Overture, music that surely belongs in any serious audiophile record collection.
On a well-known work such as this, 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 huge climax of the work? Forget it. On 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 RCA, Decca and London LPs.
The London you see above did not impress us. It sounded too much like an old record.
There are a number of other Deccas and Londons that we’ve played over the years that were disappointing, and they can be found here.
We much preferred the Decca Budget Reissue, cut from the same tapes, shown below.
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.
From the liner notes