Leopold Mozart: Toy Symphony (CD review)

Also, Peasant Wedding; Musical Sleigh Ride; W.A. Mozart: A Musical Joke. Helmut Koch, Kammerorchester Berlin; Otmar Suitner, Staatskapelle Dresden. Brilliant Classics 94692.

The younger Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, usually so overshadowed his father, Leopold, that one hardly remembers that the elder Mozart also wrote music. Unless, of course, you saw the movie Amadeus, in which case you picture the older man as a rather stern-faced fellow with little or no sense of humor. Then we listen to a few of the more-famous works attributed to Leopold, and we have to reassess his attitude. I say “attributed” to him, by the way, because Leopold spent some time copying other people’s manuscripts, and he may have passed off more than a few of them as his own.

First up on the program is the Cassation in G for toys, 2 oboes 2 horns, string and continuo, best known as the “Toy Symphony,” whose original attribution went to Joseph Haydn before scholars decided maybe Leopold Mozart wrote it (and even then they aren’t sure). A cassation, incidentally, is a musical suite similar to a divertimento or serenade, so not only may Leopold Mozart not have written it, it really isn’t a symphony, either. None of which matters; it’s a delightful little piece of music.

Helmut Koch’s way with the piece is graceful and refined, but in taking such a serious approach he rather misses out on some of the music’s joy. I have no idea what Koch’s intent was in giving us so cultured an interpretation. Perhaps he wanted to show people that the work could be more than simple children’s fare played on toy instruments. Certainly the elegant playing of the Berlin Chamber Orchestra supports the theory. Perhaps he wanted to point up the work’s inherent humor by playing it more somberly than usual, allowing the subtlety of his performance to act as a contrast to the levity of the instrumentation. Or perhaps he just forgot that the music’s greatest appeal is in its sense of humor. Compare Paillard (Erato), Marriner (Philips), or Goodman (on period instruments, Nimbus) and you’ll find they appear to be having more fun with the piece. So, if you’re thinking of a one and only recording of the “Toy Symphony,” I couldn’t really recommend Maestro Koch’s rendering. However, as there are many other recordings available, Koch would make a fine alternative reading to set off the others.

With Leopold Mozart’s “Peasant Wedding” and Divertimento in F “Musical Sleigh Ride” Maestro Koch is on firmer ground. Here, Koch seems more exuberant, his style livelier and filled with greater pleasure than in the “Toy Symphony.” The conductor seems to understand that a peasant wedding is going to be a jubilant event, filled with rustic charm, which is how the music comes off. While it's still a tad more rigid than I would have preferred, it is nevertheless a pleasing interpretation, with the bagpipes and rattles highlights of the affair.

In the "Musical Sleigh Ride" we again get a tasteful rendition, maybe not so energetic or outgoing as I might have liked, yet there's no questioning the descriptive qualities of the third-movement Allegretto and others with their whiplashes and harness bells. Koch takes these sections at a moderately leisurely trot, as he does all of the ensuing movements with their sometimes incongruous marches, dances, and ornamental flourishes. Everything comes off in a most dignified manner, if that's how you see the music.

With W.A. Mozart's "A Musical Joke" (also known as the Sextet in F for Small Town Band), the son appears to be having a dig at some of his fellow composers for their clumsy writing. Apparently Mozart meant it as a parody, but the way Otmar Suitner and members of the Staatskapelle Dresden play it, you could hardly tell. They seem to suck much of the life out of the piece by presenting it with such gravity. Again, like Koch, Suitner may have been trying to make the music all the more amusing by giving it more weight. If so, he failed with this listener; the music's gawkiness just sounds awkward to me, not funny--not even its flat, out-of-tune moments. One may find more satisfaction from the aforementioned Paillard and Marriner as well as from a dozen other recordings.

Brilliant Classics licensed the recordings in 2013 from Edel Germany, the Leopold Mozart pieces recorded in 1976 and the W.A. Mozart piece in 1960. They last appeared on disc in 2005 from Berlin Classics, an album I did not hear to compare, but I can attest to their sounding pretty good in their current incarnation. The sound in the three Leopold Mozart pieces is clean and clear, almost ideal for the small-scale works involved. The stage extends from speaker to speaker with no hole in the middle; moreover, the midrange is nicely transparent, with a fine recreation of depth, air, and space around the instruments. The various bird calls show up especially well. These are, in fact, among the best recordings I've heard of the music. The W.A. Mozart Musical Joke, recorded a decade and a half earlier, sounds smooth and warm; it's not quite as transparent as the later recordings but still quite easy on the ear.

The bottom line for me on this rerelease is that the glass is only half full: The playing is excellent and the sound is good, but the performances are so-so. 

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

JJP

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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.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa