TCHAIKOVSKY:  1812 Overture, Op. 49.  Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24.  Capriccio italien, Op. 45.  Marche slave, Op. 31.  Waltz from Eugene Onegin, Op. 24.  Festival Coronation March.  Cossack Dance from Mazeppa.
Kiev Symphony Chorus; Children's Choir of Greater Cincinnati; Cincinnati Pops Orch/Erich Kunzel, cond.

TELARC  CD 80541 (F) (DDD) TT:  60:23

In 1954 Mercury made a monophonic recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 with Antal Dorati/Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra with added cannon and carillon. It was sensationally well received by collectors who seemed to enjoy hearing the sound of canons punctuating the score. Actually Tchaikovsky wrote it that way:  there are five blasts just before the lengthy descending passage in the strings, eleven in the final pages. It was only logical with the advent of stereo there would be an up-to-date version. In 1958 Dorati and his orchestra recorded 1812 again with all the "extras":  bronze cannon,  the Laura Spelman Rockefeller carillon plus a lengthy recorded explanation by Deems Taylor of how canon and bells were recorded, with examples minus music.  Mercury's recording has been issued several times over the years, currently available coupled with Wellington's Victory of Beethoven in which the "battle" section includes not only canon and bells, but a howitzer and two kinds of muskets (Mercury 34360).

Two decades later after Dorati's stereo version, in September 1978, Telarc recorded their 1812 with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with, of course, all the "extras."  It was so successful that this recording is recognized as the major success that put Telarc on the map in the recording world.  Its importance to Telarc—and the many audiophiles who have enjoyed it for one reason or another (800,000 copies have been sold)—cannot be overestimated.

Telarc's recording stunned listeners as canon were recorded at a very high level compared with the music. The impact was, indeed, remarkable.  Warnings on all LP and CD issues advised  listeners to be careful of playback levels so as not to damage equipment, particularly speakers.  The Cincinnati "Pops" in the 1978 recording (now identified in publicity concerning that recording as the "Cincinnati Symphony") made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to sound like a major orchestra. Now Telarc is reinventing the wheel so to speak with a brand new recording of 1812 with the original canon used about two decades ago "played" by the same canoneers as in the 1978 recording, except that canon were recorded digitally "in a larger battlefield setting." The recording was made with DSD (Direct Stream Digital) encoding with simultaneous release in 2-channel stereo CD, and 6-channel discrete surround sound and 2-channel stereo in both DVD-A and SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) formats.

1812 was recorded in September 1999 and features the Kiev Symphony Chorus (recorded about a year earlier) and the Children's Choir of Greater Cincinnati, the latter heard (very effectively) for a total of thirty seconds (21 seconds 8:31 into the music and 9 seconds beginning at 11:37).  The youthful chorus might also be a part of the mass of sound at the tumultuous ending—it's hard to tell.  Notes say  "the optional brass band" was used in the finale, but don't identify the performing group; presumably it consists of extra players hired for the occasion. Michael Bishop, Telarc engineer and "surround guru," was the prime-mover for the project. He had the responsibility of mixing the various elements, done with assistance of the Sony Super Audio Group from Boulder, Colorado and New York—and, from Holland, expertise of the DSD team from Philips Electronics. Bishop and his crew have done their work well.  He warns listeners to "use caution and good sense in setting the playback volume."  He needn't have worried. The impact of the new digital cannon is not as shocking as the recording made in 1978. Recording carillon at Church of the Covenant in Cleveland on a prototype Sony six-channel DSD system does seem like a bit of overkill —six channels for a bunch of bells?.

Kunzel and the Cincinnati "Pops" have made several dozen highly successful recordings for Telarc, mostly film, Broadway and light music. (One of my favorites is The Fantastic Stokowski on which they play with commitment and really sound like a major orchestra (CD 80338).  This new CD is not as impressive for two reasons:

First, 1812—and other music on the CD—is TCHAIKOVSKY—and needs the sound of a BIG orchestra. The Cincinnati "Pops" sounded rather puny on the 1978 recording; on the new one it sounds smaller still. There are no massed strings, brass is undernourished and there are no big orchestral effects. If there's extra brass in the finale it's not obvious, at least when listening on a standard stereo system. Kunzel strives unsuccessfully for effect in 1812 with several quick tempo changes; his extending the final brass chord doesn't work either.  

Second, from a sonic view, the orchestra seems to be in a floating resonant hall  There's no edge to strings (perhaps a factor is because there aren't many of them), no bite to brass, no sizzle to the cymbals. However we always are aware of  the bass drum which seems to be front-stage center, overpowering the entire orchestra with a blob of low-frequency sound that has little to do with music. The canon are effective, fortunately not as loud as in the first Kunzel recording. Keep in mind that I've heard this on a "regular" (but very high quality) stereo system.  Doubtless from a sound standpoint hearing the recording through in the multi-channel version will make a different sonic impression. Perhaps carillon would come only from the rear, and extra brass perhaps could be heard if it had its unique channel.  However, nothing will help this turgid performance.

Weather-worn and over-popular as it is, 1812 can be an impressive experience if you have major performers.  Over the years there have been hundreds of recordings.  Among the best are the Karajan/Berlin Phil DGG recording (which has the Don Cossack Chorus at the beginning), the Reiner/Chicago SO RCA recording (no chorus or canon, and a slight cut),  Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw (no chorus or canon) or Paul van Kempen with the same orchestra (also no chorus or canon).  These performances are what the music is all about.  Kunzel and his smallish band don't begin to approach the grandeur of any of these. They re equally ineffective in lackluster performances of the other Tchaikovsky works filling out the CD, particularly Marche slave (although the gong in the final pages is mightily impressive sonically) and a Capriccio italien in which Kunzel's efforts for excitement by increasing tempo overly tax his orchestra. 

There are profuse program notes (in English and German) focusing on technical aspects of the recording. But nowhere does it give a translation of what the Russian chorus is singing at the beginning of 1812, nor does it tell why (or what) the children's chorus is singing. The final word is, "Please don't break anything or hurt yourself playing the 1812!  Use caution and good sense in setting the playback volume."  They might have added, "And try not to be too bored by the performances." Telarc has made many magnificent  recordings over the years. This is not one of them.  The 1812 I'll listen to (if I want canon and bells) remains the Dorati/Minneapolis which, although recorded more than four decades ago, is a far superior performance with sonics that still amaze.

R.E.B. (June 2001)