|Tchaikovsky - 1812 Overture|
|Music Disc Reviews SACD|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Tuesday, 22 May 2001|
Caution! DSD Cannons!
Telarc International made recording history in 1978 when they used digital audio technology to record the 1812 Overture for an album that essentially launched the company. The album – apparently the first digitally recorded and mixed project – was a landmark in many ways. With its live cannons and astonishing dynamic range, it quickly became the ultimate demo disc – and the ultimate test for a home sound system.
The advent of multi-channel discrete surround sound and high-definition audio recording systems such as 24/96 PCM and the DSD system, with its frequency response extending beyond 100 kHz, along with microphones and other equipment with a similar capability, plus the availability of Super Audio CD and DVD-Audio, helped Jack Renner and Robert Woods of Telarc to decide to create a new recording of the 1812 that utilized these technologies to the full. The result is another superb "must-have" landmark recording, and one that will tax your sound system even more than the original.
Deciding to release the recording on the latest DSD recording equipment, a large number of factors had to come together to make the album possible. The availability of gear, the availability of performers and other factors meant that the recording had to be made over an extended period and at several different venues: the Kiev Symphony Chorus (at Cleveland’s Masonic Auditorium) and the orchestra (at Cleveland’s Music Hall) were recorded a year apart, for example. The Civil War-era cannons were recorded elsewhere, and the church bells were captured at yet another location. The immense complexity of the logistics required to pull this recording together, edit it on largely prototype equipment, and release it in two different formats, is astonishing. A lot of credit must be given to Michael Bishop, who carried the bulk of the responsibility for making it all happen.
The recording itself is also interesting in other ways. Like several of Telarc’s surround releases, the recording is mixed to include optional height information using the so-called LFE channel, which is redundant on modern systems (due to bass management, which insures that bass on any channel is routed to speakers that can handle it). Unlike Chesky’s with-height recordings, which use the CF and LFE to create an elevated pair, Telarc’s height information occupies just one channel, to be used to drive a pair of elevated side speakers. The height information does add to the overall effect, particularly – interestingly enough – with the cannons, perhaps because the recording system for them included a dummy head on a 45-foot high stand! I would, however, say that the height information is not as clearly defined as it is in the Chesky recording: I had to fiddle with levels a little to get the best result, although it should be noted that Telarc recommend dipoles for the height speakers, and I was using direct radiators (which suit the Chesky very well).
This recording is available on both DVD-A/V and SACD formats, and I was able to compare the two, albeit on two different players in the absence of a single universal player. The DVD-A disc is dual-sided, with a DVD-A side containing 88.2 Hz, 20-bit surround, and 88.2 kHz, 24-bit stereo, while the DVD-V side includes DTS surround and PCM stereo tracks. There is a photo gallery and other material, but no visuals that display during the tracks (just a title card). The disc also includes DVD-ROM material, including MP3 versions of the music and web links. The SACD includes high-density surround and stereo, plus a stereo Red Book CD-compatible layer – and of course, no pictures whatsoever.
Obviously, in terms of features, the DVD-A offers better value, with the added visual material, DVD-Audio and DVD-Video compatibility, and so on. I have been able to compare DVD-A and SACD releases of the same material on one other occasion so far (Chesky’s "Swing Live" release), where I found the audio quality between the two formats to be very similar, with perhaps a little more brightness on the DVD-A and a little more smoothness on the SACD. Here, the SACD definitely has the edge, with greater smoothness, a more analog-like sound and seemingly slightly more detail. The DVD-A is similar at the top end, but for some reason, I felt that there was not quite as much detail as in the SACD version. This is a DSD original recording, and in the SACD signal chain, that bitstream format is preserved throughout, whereas in the case of the DVD-A version, the bitstream has been decimated to 20-bit (why not 24-bit?) PCM and this may have compromised the quality a tiny bit.
But such criticisms are being picky, as the difference is very slight, and may be due to my having to use two different players (though the two versions have different strong and weak points from the "Swing Live" pair). My suspicion is that the DVD-A/V version will be more popular, because it can offer surround content to the owner of any DVD machine, even if the very best quality is only revealed with a special player, and perhaps because of the "added value" features that are simply not a part of the SACD format at this time. However, if you are solely interested in the audio, the SACD is the one for you.
This recording is an astonishing achievement, both technically and logistically. It sounds excellent; the performance is fine and flawless, especially the children’s choir and the Kiev chorus; the surround placement consists of sensible arcs across a wide front stage, with the cannons all around you to great effect. You will want to use this disc as a demo record, but if you do, first be sure to find out what level the cannons should be, starting at low level – they really are very loud and take full advantage of the hundred-and-something dB of dynamic range offered by both systems. It is one of the best recordings I have the pleasure of owning.
Inevitably overshadowed by the 1812, do also remember that there are six other Tchaikovsky pieces on this album. The 1812 occupies only the first 16 minutes or so of an excellent and well-matched program, including two pieces from "Eugene Onegin," the "Capriccio Italien" and the "Marche Slave," amongst others.
Whichever format you choose, you should have this disc.