Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture (HQCD review)

Also, Capriccio Italien; Marche Slave. Kenneth Alwyn, London Symphony Orchestra and the Band of the Grenadier Guards. HDTT HQCD276.

Maestro Kenneth Alwyn’s account of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture is one of which a person can say it has truly stood the test of time. The recording is famous for several reasons: First and foremost, the performance and sound remain topflight. Second, back in 1958 it was the first stereo recording of the 1812 ever released. Third, it was the earliest of Kenneth Alwyn’s recordings for any label. And fourth, it famously used slowed-down gunshots instead of real cannons, which is perhaps why they haven’t quite the bottom end of some other recordings, like those on Telarc’s disc with Kunzel, Mercury’s with Dorati, or EMI’s with Previn. But they’re fine as they are.

As of this writing, the only available CD’s of Alwyn’s 1812 were Japanese and Australian imports (the Japanese edition costing your firstborn), so again the folks at HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) come to the rescue, providing a remastering that belies the recording’s age. It is a topflight release.

Alwyn’s way with the 1812 is steady and exuberant from the very start. The minor drawback is that when it gets to the end, there isn’t the usual contrast and excitement one expects. Then, too, the horns are a bit shaky in places, and when the cannons come in they sound a little too thin to make much of an impact. In addition, the concluding accompaniment of bells seems a tad Raggedy Annie in the big, splashy conclusion. That said, Alwyn’s quick-paced reading manages to involve the listener from the outset and never lets go. And whether one likes the artificial cannons or doesn’t like their lack of bottom-end thump, they do sound the way I’d guess most listeners think cannons should sound, with a very dramatic roll of thunder. Moreover, the conductor provides an engaging interpretation that has entertained audiences for well over half a century; it’s hard to argue against that.

The conductor’s performances of the March Slave and Capriccio Italien that accompany the 1812 come off even better for me and must rank high on anyone’s list of top choices. The conductor never treats them as warhorses, instead developing a good deal of energy and excitement in the performances. Maybe the Capriccio will sound to some ears a mite rushed; so be it. The music comes off sunny enough, with plenty of good cheer and orchestral thrills. In the central section Alwyn seems so positively sunny and relaxed, you’d think he was conducting from the terrace of a southern Italian villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Collectors will want to have this disc in any case. I don’t blame them.

HDTT remastered the recording from a Decca LP, originally made in 1958 at London’s Kingsway Hall by producer Michael Williamson and engineer Kenneth Wilkinson. As I was listening to the HQCD, I wrote down the following descriptions of the sound: Quiet. Wide. Clean. Detailed. Well defined. Close. Solid. Rounded. Listenable. Taut. Impressive in its stereo directionality. Natural, if slightly too analytical.

The recording’s most distinguishing features are, in fact, its superior clarity, definition, transient impact, left-to-right stereo spread, and wide frequency range. There is virtually no background noise, the remastering engineer having no doubt applied a degree of noise reduction. Depth perception sounds limited, though. Bass is deep enough, although the cannons don’t have the wallop of some competing recordings. While the sound overall is not so transparent in the 1812 as that for Previn, Dorati, or Kunzel, it is just as realistic in its own, somewhat softer, flatter manner.

Let me put it another way: HDTT’s remastering is the best version of the recording we have yet to get for home listening. Period.

For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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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 John 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical 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 I 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 an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. 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 LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. 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.
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.

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