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:


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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 Jon 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 of The $ensible Sound magazine 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 simpleminded, 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 Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. 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 cell phone. 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.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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