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.


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

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa