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.