Tchaikovsky: 1812 (XRCD24 review)

Also, Marche Slave; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. Andre Previn, London Symphony Orchestra. Hi-Q Records HIQSXR7.

After a successful musical career in Hollywood, pianist, composer, and conductor Andre Previn became the Music Director of the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1967 and then the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1968, serving in the latter post until 1979. Although he has gone on to do more good work with various orchestras, it was during his tenure with the LSO that he made some of his finest recordings, at first with RCA but mostly with EMI. Indeed, it is with the LSO during the Seventies that Previn made some now legendary EMI recordings, which are only just now seeing the audiophile remasterings they deserve.

In 2002 JVC remastered Previn’s EMI recording of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream on an XRCD, but that seemed to be the end of it. Until recently, as Hi-Q Records have taken up the slack, using JVC’s XRCD24 K2 processing to do a series of remasterings of material by Previn and others. It’s about time, I say. Up until these releases, the best we could get from the EMI material were the regular reissues from EMI Japan, with their very slightly better dynamics and bass than the regular British product. Now, it’s Hi-Q and JVC to the rescue again.

Anyway, Previn always seemed to me to have a somewhat limited repertoire, yet what he did perform and record (mostly English, American, and Russian material, with the aforementioned Mendelssohn thrown in) was always among the best available. Certainly, that applies to the disc under discussion, Tchaikovsky’s popular 1812 Overture.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote the 1812 Overture in 1880 to celebrate Russia's defense of Moscow against Napoleon's advancing army at the Battle of Borodino in 1812. As usual with the composer, he didn’t like the work very much. He complained that he was "not a conductor of festival pieces" and that the Overture would be "very loud and noisy, but without artistic merit because I wrote it without warmth and without love.” Whatever, along with a couple of his ballets and symphonies, it has become his most-famous and most often performed work.

Of the multitudinous recordings of the 1812, only a few truly stand out: Antal Dorati’s old Mercury Living Presence version for its sheer excitement, Erich Kunzel’s Telarc disc with its thrilling cannon fire, and Sian Edwards’s and Fritz Reiner’s sane and sensible accounts for EMI and RCA respectively would be on my own short list. But Previn’s EMI performance still tops the field, for me the most imaginative and atmospheric interpretation of the bunch, the one that holds my attention from beginning to end no matter how many times I listen to it. And that’s no mean feat, given how hackneyed much of the 1812 has become through sheer repetition. Apparently, I’m not the only one who likes what Previn did with the work, either, considering that his recording has been continuously in the EMI catalogue on LP and CD for over forty years.

In the 1812 Previn starts very slowly, building up the momentum incrementally rather than going for broke in the first half. Then, when he does heighten the music’s power, the piece really gets rolling. By the time Previn reaches the big climactic moments toward the end, he has created a genuinely exciting experience for the listener. The final five minutes are thrilling, indeed!

Previn goes on to handle the two couplings equally well. The Marche Slave, which I have usually thought of as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 without the cannons, has presence and bite. What’s more, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture is supremely romantic:  lush, lyrical, and rhapsodic. Previn has the measure of all these works and isn’t afraid to let his emotions show. Maybe that comes from his Hollywood days.

EMI recorded the music in 1972 at Kingsway Hall, London, and obviously did a good job. However, I always felt the LP sounded better on the whole than the compact disc, the CD transfer seeming a little softer and woolier to me. So how would this newly remastered audiophile edition sound? After all, Hi-Q Records took the recording directly from the original master tape and engineered it employing JVC’s XRCD K2 processing, a meticulous technique that begins with the analogue signal digitized directly into K2 24-bit, sent to JVC for playback via Digital K2 to eliminate jitter and distortion, converted using K2 Super Coding to 16 bit, and encoded using a DVD K2 laser with JVC’s Extended Pit Cutting Technology, the operation controlled by a K2 Rubidium Clock they claim is over 10,000 times more accurate than a conventional crystal clock. I think what all this means is that the process Hi-Q uses, much as companies like FIM/LIM and JVC themselves use, is about as precise and accurate as one can get in transferring an analogue tape signal to compact disc.

I put the Hi-Q disc in one player and the regular EMI version in another and prepared to listen and compare, switching them out from time to time ensure I was actually comparing discs and not CD players. The first thing I noticed about the EMI disc, which I hadn’t listened to in a few years, was that it was a tad fat and clouded. The Hi-Q was tauter, more transparent, with a bit less upper and mid-bass overhang. In other words, there was less veiling involved. Next, on the Hi-Q I heard more bite on the snare drums, the overall transient quickness and dynamic impact better. High notes were more open on the Hi-Q as well, better clarified.

Each time I went back to the EMI issue, I heard a distinct muffling of the sound. Now, I know what you are really wondering: How do those cannons come off in the Hi-Q 1812? Just fine is the answer, tighter and better defined than on the EMI disc. Just don’t expect Telarc cannon fire; they aren’t quite in that league. I’ve long thought it odd, too, that the second bank of cannons on the EMI LP and CD never sounded as deep as the first round; I don’t know why this is, but it’s the same on the Hi-Q mastering.

Meanwhile, it is actually on the accompanying pieces that the Hi-Q sounds best. For whatever reason, the Marche Slave and Romeo and Juliet pieces seem even more transparent on the XRCD24 remastering. Again, I don’t know why. Maybe I was just becoming more used to the sound of both discs and better able to discern differences. In any event, I think the nature of the source material is such that while neither disc displays quite as much clarity, depth, impact, or air as it might, there is no doubt the Hi-Q remastering is the superior of the two. Even if it’s not a day-and-night difference, it’s plainly audible.

In addition to the precision processing, Hi-Q Records package the disc in a very substantial, beautifully illustrated Digipak, with note pages fastened book-like inside. It is a high-class product, although it doesn’t come cheap. Unless you have very deep pockets, it’s the sort of product you buy to replace a favored recording that you want to own and listen to in the very best possible sound. Even if it’s only marginally better, it should be worthwhile to dedicated audiophiles looking to obtain the last ounce of great sound from their multi-buck playback systems.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura’s hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
The reader will find Classical Candor's Mission Statement, Staff Profiles, and contact information ( toward the bottom of each page.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Writer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa