Friday 7 December 2012

That Parted My Hair!

One of the most famous “Demonstration Discs” of all time is Telarc’s 1812 Overture, with Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra.  With its real firing cannons and peals of church bells, it is the ultimate in musical Special Effects!

As early as 1958, Mercury Records, seeking a flagship recording for their “Mercury Living Presence” label released a recording with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati, with brass cannons and a real carillon.  The recording was massively popular, and in truth, there was absolutely nothing like it on record at the time.  To this day it remains a well-known and highly desirable collectors piece.

Twenty years later, in 1978, Telarc decided that they needed their own 1812 overture as a flagship for their quality-oriented record label.  They commissioned Erich Kunzel and the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra and pulled out all the stops with their own real brass cannon and bells.  This recording, however, presented the cannon blasts at a much higher volume, with far greater bass energy, and the resultant LP came with dire warnings about blowing the cones off your loudspeakers!

Whether originating through genuine concern, or unabashed marketing hype, the dire warnings spread like fire and Telarc all of a sudden had a major hit on their hands.  It sold phenomenally. Arguably, this recording put Telarc on the map all by itself.

The recording was refreshed for CD by the addition of digitally recorded cannons, but by then the novelty was wearing off and the recording was being criticized for its poor acoustics and for the less than stellar playing from the orchestra.  But the record still had enormous public appeal, so Telarc took the unusual step of re-recording it in 1999, using the same performers.  Indeed the same cannons were used, and were in fact fired by the same cannoneers.  This performance also added a choral introduction by the Kiev Symphony Chorus and a brief (and very effective) choral interlude from the Children’s Choir of Greater Cincinnati.  As far as I can tell, Kunzel was instructed (or chose, I don’t know) to recreate precisely the tempi, sonorities, and presentation of the original.  The only problem is, they’re still not the Berlin Phil.  The string playing in particular fails to impress.

This completely new recording shares a deceptively similar sleeve and cover design to the CD of the original, so it is easy to go out and buy the wrong one.  The key is to look for the accreditation of the Kiev Symphony Chorus on the sleeve.

The new recording is every bit the Audio Special FX reference!  Available as a dual-disc SACD/CD, and as a high-resolution 24/176 download from HDtracks, those cannons still kick butt.  I have just played through both the “original” CD version and the new recording.  The new one is most assuredly the one to have.  The two choirs are fabulous.  The brass and drums have authority, power, and weight.  The balance of the recording is impeccable.  Almost flawless, in fact.  The cannons are particularly impressive, thunderingly, percussively loud, and with real spatial definition, their sound probably limited more by the microphones than by anything else.  You still need to fear for your loudspeaker cones!

As my friend Nigel put it – “Wow! That parted my hair!”.