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Tchaikovsky: 1812 Festival Overture,…

Tchaikovsky: 1812 Festival Overture, Capriccio Italien / Beethoven:…

by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Antal Dorati (Conductor)

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Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)

[1] 1812 Overture, Op. 49 [14:49]
[2] Commentary to the 1812 Overture / sound effects / bells [12:08]
[3] Capriccio italien, Op. 45 [14:44]

Antal Dorati
Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra
University of Minnesota Brass Band
Bronze Cannon, Douay, France (1775)

(Courtesy of the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York)
Bells of the Laura Spelman Rockfeller Memorial Carillon, The Riverside Church, New York City
Spoken Commentary by Deems Taylor

Recorded: 22 December 1955 (Capriccio) & 5 April 1958 (1812), Northrop Auditorium, Minneapolis; 10 May 1958, The Riverside Church, New York City (bells); 30 July 1958, West Point, New York (cannon shots); 13 November 1958, Fine Recording, New York City (commentary).

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91

[4] Battle [8:18]
[5] Symphony of Triumph [6:52]
[6] Commentary to Wellington’s Victory / sound effects [9:16]

Antal Dorati
London Symphony Orchestra
Spoken Commentary by Deems Taylor

Recorded: 9 June 1960, Wembly Town Hall, London; 20 August 1960, West Point, New York (cannons & muskets); 22 & 23 November, 1960, Fine Recording, New York City (commentary).

Decca, 2007. The Originals. TT 66:07.


This is truly one of the most extraordinary recordings ever made, a true landmark in the history of recorded sound. The guys from Mercury tried really hard – and actually succeeded – to record the finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812, that notorious pandemonium of brass, bells and cannons, as it is written in the score. They had only themselves to compete with: in 1954 they had made a mono recording of the work. With the advent of the stereo, a remake was of course obligatory. 1812 is a piece which, ideally, should be performed outdoors, complete with real cannons and real bells from the nearby church. Well, now you get all this at home, and in sound far superior than anything you can possibly get outdoors.

The extensive liner notes and even more so Deems Taylor’s fascinating commentary tell the whole story in compelling detail. The Mercury guys set out to follow the score as scrupulously as possible. Tchaikovsky composed 1812 reluctantly, merely to oblige Nikolay Rubinstein, but he was not a man to do things by halves. Each of the 16 cannon shots is precisely indicated in the full score and so are the military band and the entry and duration (though no specific melody or pattern) of the bells. The Mercury fellows went to West Point, borrowed a French cannon from 1775, much like the ones Napoleon used in his Russian campaign, hung three microphones on the trees and – BOOM! It’s quite a bang, I assure you. The best shot was chosen for the recording and multiplied by sixteen. That done, the Mercury engineers departed for the 392-foot Riverside Church Tower and its monumental carillon of 74 bells including a bourdon that weighs 40,296 pounds and has a diameter of 122 inches, the largest tuned bell in the world. With the invaluable help of carillonneur Kamiel Lefévere, who played this monstrous thing from a special cabin high in the tower, the Mercury guys hung the microphones and – DING-DONG! It’s quite a clangour, I assure you.

The final result must be heard to be believed. But be very careful with the volume! The cannons are really loud and can really damage your speakers if not your ears. My only mild complaint is that the clangour is a trifle too loud. Otherwise the balance is excellent and it’s quite something to hear. Quite apart from the sound effects, the orchestra is recorded with unbelievable fidelity and dynamic range for 1958. Everything from a solo oboe to the most epic climaxes comes off with startling vividness and clarity. I don’t think Dorati ever made any recordings with the Big Five of American orchestras (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Cleveland), but he almost makes the Minneapolis Symphony sound like number six.

If only the rest of the rest of the disc had been that great! Now, Capriccio italien is a showpiece of much nobler metal than 1812, but Dorati is rushed and sloppy, remarkably so considering his stylish conducting in the Overture. The sound is fantastic for 1955, but nowhere near as fantastic as the one three years later. It’s very clean and well-balanced, but without much depth or presence.

It was a surprise to me to learn that among the fathers of “battle music” is the good old Ludwig himself. For obvious historical reasons Wellington’s Victory is, of course, a perfect companion piece to 1812. Unfortunately, Beethoven’s creation is greatly inferior to Tchaikovsky’s. “Battle” is just that: a frightful cacophony of cannon and musket fire complete with fanfares, anthems and war songs. It is barely listenable. “Symphony of Triumph” is more like Beethoven, but it’s a third-rate Beethoven all the same. Compared to his great overtures, Egmont and Coriolan above all, this is very slight stuff. But at least it’s music.

The commentary and the liner notes are by far the most interesting feature here. This recording project was considerably more complicated than 1812. Beethoven was not a man to do things by halves, either. He outdid Tchaikovsky in the artillery department with German thoroughness. Altogether 194 cannon shots, British and French, and innumerable musket volleys are indicated in the score. So our friends from Mercury went to West Point again. With the invaluable help of Gerald C. Stowe, curator of the local museum, they selected one French cannon (weight 634 pounds, made in 1761), one British cannon (656 pounds, 1755), one howitzer used by both sides, seven flintlock muskets (also French and British), then went to a specially secluded area, hung the microphones on the trees and – the “Battle [of Vitoria]” began. It certainly gives a new perspective of the Napoleonic Wars. If just three cannons and seven muskets can make that much noise, imagine what it must have been on the battlefield itself!

1812 is absolutely enough to justify the purchase of this disc. Unfortunately, even if we include the commentary, it doesn’t amount even to half of the total timing. There is no shortage of great recordings of this exciting piece, for example Ashkenazy’s choral version for Decca (which is very different than Tchaikovsky’s original but irresistibly grand) or Bernstein’s late rendition with the Israel Philharmonic (1984, DG), but nothing really compares with Mercury’s miracle of sound engineering. For the rest I deduct one star. Capriccio italien has been done a lot better elsewhere (check Barenboim with the Chicago Symphony, DG, 1981) and Wellington’s Victory, for all of Mercury’s painstaking recreation of the Battle of Vitoria, remains an extravagant musical-military curiosity from the early nineteenth century that’s not worth bothering with. We shouldn’t judge Ludwig too harshly, though. By 1813 he had earned his right to have some musical-military fun with the Corsican. ( )
1 vote Waldstein | Feb 13, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovskyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dorati, AntalConductormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Beethoven, Ludwig vansecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
London Symphony OrchestraOrchestrasecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Minneapolis Symphony OrchestraOrchestrasecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Taylor, Deemssecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
University of Minnesota Brass BandOrchestrasecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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