By Janelle Gelfand The Cincinnati Enquirer
It's as much a staple of summertime concerts as picnics and flag waving. The Cincinnati Pops' new high-tech recording of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture will be on shelves today.
Pops conductor Erich Kunzel felt ambivalent about re-recording his all-time best-selling album of 1978, the 1812 Overture, last year. It had not yet sold a million copies (just 800,000).
That historic 1812 helped launch a record company - Cleveland-based Telarc - and a recording relationship with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Pops that has lasted more than 23 years. (For more, see the Telarc Web site, Telarc.com.)
Back then, it was the first-ever digital record, a wonder of mixing orchestra with bells and cannons - the first digital cannons. Over the years, sound effects have become a fixture in Telarc's 70 albums with the Pops. Now, with the new 1812 (that includes chorus), listeners will get yet a bigger bang for their buck.
"Please don't break anything or hurt yourself playing the 1812," warns Telarc's special effects guru Michael Bishop in the liner notes.
The album is recorded in the new, high-tech Direct Stream Digital (DSD), which again puts the Pops (and Telarc) on the cutting edge of technology. You'll hear the orchestra and chorus in three-dimensional sound - how dramatically will depend upon how up-to-the-minute your sound equipment is.
"On a high-resolution surround playback system, you'll feel the cannonballs zip dangerously close over your head," Mr. Bishop says. (For audiophiles, it's being released in two formats: Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) and DVD-Audio, a new digital audio format. The SACD format can be played on conventional CD players.)
In addition to the 1812 Overture, the album includes six other works by Tchaikovsky, two of which, the "Cossack's Dance" from Mazeppa and the Capriccio Italien were on the 1978 recording.
Telarc recorded the bells, cannons and choruses - the Kiev Symphony Chorus, prepared by Roger McMurrin, and the Children's Choir of Greater Cincinnati, Robyn Lana, director - and layered them over the orchestra track.
The bells are the carillon from Cleveland's Church of the Covenant; the cannons - the same used in 1978 - were recorded at Blossom Music Center.
Drama of the music
Mr. Kunzel leads the 1812 with visceral power, tempered by moments of stirring lyricism. His tempos are brisk, and he lets the drama of the music speak for itself.
The opening a cappella hymn ("God Preserve Thy People," sung in Russian) has a dark color as only a Ukrainian chorus can produce. The chorus was recorded in Cleveland's Masonic Auditorium, and the sound is rich and resonant. (The tenors' intonation is a tad off, though.)
The orchestra sounds spectacular; the brass and percussion are weighty and thrusting. The buildup to the climactic moment with blazing cannons is exhilarating, and the finale, with the chorus soaring over the bells, is pure goose-bump music.
Tchaikovsky's opera Eugene Onegin is represented here with a Polonaise and a Waltz. Mr. Kunzel swaggers through this dance music; it's festive and brilliant, though short on detail
One of the highlights is the Capriccio Italien. These memories of Tchaikovsky's Italian holiday are colorful and well-paced. A magnificent brass chorale opens the work, and the orchestra evokes the varied moods and charming dance tunes with a range of expression.
Marche Slave is sometimes played like a dirge, but Mr. Kunzel emphasizes its folk-like idiom, and keeps the tempo brisk. His conducting is incisive and dramatic, balancing the high-spirited fife-and-drum music with the stirring Russian national anthem.
Festival Coronation March is splendidly grandiose; and the "Cossack Dance" from Tchaikovksy's opera, Mazeppa is impressive for the sheer virtuosity of the playing.