Ironically, given its lasting popularity, Tchaikovsky composed the 1812 Overture reluctantly and full of doubt as to its worth.
Written for the opening of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, built to commemorate Napoleon’s disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, it was intended for the outdoors: hence Tchaikovsky’s inclusion of cannons, and the 1812’s relatively broad-brush narrative, representing the invading French with fragments of the Marseillaise, over which the Russian Orthodox chant ‘Save us, O Lord’ and the Imperial anthem ultimately triumph.
Taking the work into the recording studio raises tricky considerations, and not just about those cannons: should one faithfully follow the dynamic extremes of Tchaikovsky’s score to the letter, or allow that there is a difference between projecting an open-air performance and creating one for listening in the comfort of one’s living room?
It is best, perhaps, not to be too prescriptive about this, of all works…
The best recording…
St Petersburg Chamber Choir; Leningrad Military Orchestra; St Petersburg Philharmonic (1996)
Decca 478 3365
Purists should look away now, or at least skip to the next recommendation.
Certain critics get very indignant about recordings which, not content with the cannons, bells and optional military band Tchaikovsky suggested, add a choir for good measure.
But for outstanding orchestral playing married with suitably explosive cannons, Vladimir Ashkenazy’s version with ‘authentic’ St Petersburg forces is by some distance the best available; and where in other performances the choral parts are prissily sung (as in the generally over-rated Neeme Järvi version on DG), the St Petersburg Chamber Choir sings the chant which opens and closes the work magnificently.
On other recordings the choral adaptations themselves – for there is no standard one – are too often poorly done, whether due to insufficient consideration being given to balancing choir with orchestra, or due to the choir’s overuse.
The arrangement used by Ashkenazy only verges on the latter fault when the women sing the unassuming Russian folk song that sets the pastoral scene midway through the work before the heat of battle; but such is the drive and conviction of Ashkenazy’s interpretation that one barely registers this as an intrusion.
The nerds among us will also relish the use of the authentically Russian cannon and bells of the Peter and Paul Fortress of St Petersburg, which make a roof-raising, magnificent noise.
Three more great recordings…
Royal Dutch Marine Band; Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra (1993)
Decca 478 2122
For those who insist on hearing only the forces Tchaikovsky wrote for, Valery Gergiev and his musicians provide a rousing end, with uncredited yet realistic cannons and very authentic-sounding Russian bells.
Be warned that the beginning is gentle and unassuming: the chant is played, as Tchaikovsky intended, by four solo cellos and a pair of violas, but Gergiev’s smoothing out of Tchaikovsky’s extreme crescendos and diminuendos perhaps suggests a Russian congregation at peace rather than one urgently praying ‘Save us, O Lord’.
Even when the full orchestra interrupts this idyll, the cellos and bassoons, like middle-aged men, seem reluctant to stir. With the arrival of the woodwind cavalry, though, we sense serious business, and once the battle launches the adrenalin really flows.
Band of the Grenadier Guards; LSO (1958)
Decca Eloquence 480 5048
1958 witnessed two pioneer recordings. Antal Doráti’s 1812 on Mercury features an impressive authentic bronze cannon, but is spoilt by wooden orchestral playing.
That same year, Kenneth Alwyn was summoned to record Decca’s first stereo 1812.
Alwyn had never conducted the work before, yet this works to the recording’s advantage: he takes nothing for granted in this compelling account.
Two caveats: one, the cannons are feebly represented by stock library recordings; second, Decca’s engineers ‘sexed up’ their new technology by spotlighting instruments (you can’t miss the entry of the Grenadier Guards!).
The result is some weird distortions of balance, the aural equivalent of garishly watercoloured Victorian photographs. Still, a magnificent performance shines through.
Sydney Symphony Orchestra (1989)
ABC Classics 476 3507
What, no military band? Actually, several fine recordings pass on that option and make do with just symphony orchestra plus effects.
These include two very distinguished versions which didn’t make the final cut: Riccardo Muti (EMI) and Claudio Abbado (Sony). Both are bettered by the late Stuart Challender (1947-91) conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in a thoroughly engaging 1812 which neither hectors nor loses steam, as Abbado does temporarily during the folksong.
Like Gergiev, Challender gives a beautifully restrained account of the opening chant, yet there is no doubt of the peril presaged by the full orchestral tutti.
This is a performance full of detailed characterisation, ever alert to the music’s human drama.
Original text by Daniel Jaffé