Mozart: Requiem (SACD review)

Reconstruction of first performance. John Butt, Dunedin Consort. Linn Records CKD 449.

Given that Mozart never finished his final composition, the Requiem in D minor, K. 626, we'll never know with absolute certainty how it might have come out. In the meantime, everybody and his second-uncle Bob have produced their own version of what it might have been like had Mozart completed it. Of course, the earliest and most-popular of the completions is the one by Mozart's own assistant, Franz Xaver Sussmayr, carried out at Mozart's death, and that's the one we hear on the present disc from Maestro John Butt and his period-instruments performers, the Dunedin Consort (named after a Scottish castle). However, Butt and his colleagues attempt to go one further than most other conductors and orchestras by not only offering a historically informed performance but one they claim comes as close as possible to the first public performance of the Sussmayr score, performed at a benefit concert for Mozart's widow, Constanze, in January 1793, just over a year after the composer's death.

Whether a reconstruction of the music for that early event will appeal to everyone is another story. There are a lot of people who simply resist all period performances from all period bands, and there will be yet more people who will undoubtedly resist this one in particular, given that it utilizes far more-reduced choral and orchestral forces than used in most other presentations. The result is a leaner, tauter, and obviously less-grand Requiem than one usually hears. This isn't Giulini or Davis we're talking about. Not even Marriner, Herreweghe, Hogwood, or Gardiner. Be prepared.

Now, here's the thing: Despite the smaller forces, instead of the performance sounding more intimate, the miking is such that the group seems bigger than they probably really are, negating some of the intimacy that could have attended the event. This is mainly so in the bigger passages, though, and the purely orchestral and solo sections are fine.

What's more, despite Butt taking some speedy tempos on occasion and creating some heady contrasts, the entire performance still seems fairly conventional. Among the segments that stood out for me were the "Dies Irae" for its menacing spirit; the "Tuba Mirum," "Recordare," and "Lux Aeterna" for their sweet freshness; and the "Lacrimosa" for its earnest bearing. The rest of the reading sounds OK but not necessarily more compelling than anyone else's.

In addition to the Requiem the program contains Mozart's Misericordias Domini in D minor, K. 222, "Offertorium de tempore," recently identified by researcher David Black as one of the composer's final works and using basically the same forces as the Requiem. And we also get two reconstructions of music performed at Mozart's own Requiem Mass of December 10, 1791, five days after his death: the "Requiem Aeterna" and "Kyrie." I actually enjoyed them more than I did the Requiem itself.

Philip Hobbs produced and recorded this hybrid stereo-multichannel SACD for Linn Records in September 2013 at Greyfriar's Kirk, Edinburgh, UK. I listened in the SACD two-channel stereo mode and found the sound generally good, if not quite up to Linn's highest standards. It displays some very smooth, clear, natural orchestral sonics, with a modest sense of presence, air, and dimensionality in the instruments. The choir and soloists, however, tend to get a bit too bright for my taste and a little congested, too, in the loudest passages. The hall's inherent ambient bloom may have gotten in the way of the cleanest vocals, I don't know. In any case, it's not a huge concern and may even favor more reticent playback systems. The miking, as I said earlier, is also a tad close and the dynamics quite wide, making the smallish ensemble seem larger, though not necessarily more imposing, for it.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa