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: