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Leopold MOZART (1719 - 1787): "Symphonies"

L'Orfeo Barockorchester
Dir: Michi Gaigg

rec: Nov 1 - 3, 2002, Linz, Brucknerconservatorium
CPO - 999 942-2 ( 2003) (63'28")

Divertimento in D 'Bauernhochzeit'; Symphony in G 'Neue Lambacher' (Eisen G16); Symphony in G 'Sinfonia burlesca' (Eisen G2); Symphony in G 'Sinfonia di caccia' (Eisen G9)


Some composers appear in every book on music history, but mostly because they have written an important treatise or have been the teacher of a famous composer. Johann Mattheson, Johann Josef Fux and 'Padre' Giovanni Battista Martini all belong to this category. Their activities in composing are mostly referred to, but hardly explored, or provided with negative qualifications. Since most of their works are seldom performed or recorded it is difficult to verify such negative assessments.
Leopold Mozart shares the fate of the afore-mentioned composers. He is first and foremost known as father of Wolfgang Amadeus, and secondly as author of an important book on playing the violin. If compositions of his are performed at all, then mostly the lighter, divertimento-like works. On the basis of these he is usually considered a very mediocre composer.

From this perspective it is rather disappointing that most compositions selected for this disc belong to the genre of the divertimento. These are particularly suitable to support the existing prejudice of superficiality. Only the last item on this disc, the so-called Neue Lambacher Sinfonie, does belong to the more 'serious' type of orchestral music.
Already in Leopold's own time his compositions of music for entertainment met some criticism. After a performance around the turn of the year 1755/56 he received an anonymous letter which said: "May the gentleman please not to do such farcical pieces anymore, like Chinese and Turkish music, a sleigh ride, even a peasant wedding, as it brings more shame and contempt for your person than honour, which I as an authority regret and herewith warn you, I persist as your dearest friend."

This event reflects the social development in the 18th century which underlies the creation of the kind of music Leopold Mozart and many of his contemporaries wrote. This is extensively explained in the booklet. Traditionally instrumental music was played in the private circles of the court or the private rooms of the upper middle classes by professional musicians (the circle the writer of the above-mentioned letter clearly belonged to). The lower classes didn't have access to this kind of performances. But their growing self-consciousness made them asking for instrumental music to be played in public. Generally public concerts were performed by non-professional players. This created a need for music which wasn't too technically complicated. Many pieces were programmatic: this way the composer could explain the meaning of his music to performers who were not able to understand its meaning in a more theoretical way.

In addition composers gave often detailed clues as to how their music should be performed. So did Leopold Mozart in the first two pieces on this disc. In the Sinfonia di caccia he orders the horns to play forte all the time. He also asks for barking dogs and for people yelling 'ho ho' for five bars. In the Bauernhochzeit he wanted hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe to be added to the strings. They don't have a part of their own, but they should come in now and then playing the part of the violin. The third work, the Sinfonia Burlesca, links up with the popularity of comical characters, known from the commedia dell'arte, like Arlecchino and Il Signor Pantalone, or the Austrian peasant comedy (Hanswurst).

In a way playing this kind of music isn't easy. The problem isn't technical, but atmospherical: in particular on a CD it is difficult to create the right atmosphere. Several things Leopold Mozart asks for are ignored here: there are no barking dogs, no people screaming 'ho ho', let alone the shooting of a rifle in the Sinfonia di caccia. The differentiated playing of the horns in this work is admirable, but out of place here. Their playing is way too polished, and they don't play forte all the time either. In the Bauernhochzeit the hurdy-gurdy and bagpipe are used and there is some yelling and whistling. But it sounds too laboured and unnatural. Things like these are useless when the playing is as neat and humourless as is the case here. The Sinfonia Burlesca doesn't depend that much on effects and doesn't require too many frills. There are no parts for violins, and is played here with 2 violas, 2 cellos, double bass, bassoon and harpsichord. The performance is vivid, with a clear articulation, but a little too serious as well.

In the last item we meet Leopold Mozart as the composer of 'serious' music, and in this work he cuts a pretty good figure. It is telling that for a long time this symphony has been attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus. The first movement is very lively and colourful, with beautiful parts for the wind. The playing here is very energetic, with fine dynamic contrasts. The andante's vivid rhythms are realised very well and the last movement is even enthralling.

The interpretation as a whole is rather unbalanced. One really shouldn't listen too carefully to the first two items as they are meant just to entertain. But unfortunately the performance is too serious to use these pieces to add to the fun at weddings and parties. I personally don't expect to listen to them another time. But in particular the Neue Lambacher Sinfonie deserves to be played more often. Here the unmistakeble qualities of the orchestra come through most clearly.

The booklet refers to the considerable dramatic qualities of Leopold Mozart's sacred music. Could we once hear some specimen of that, please?

Johan van Veen ( 2004)

Relevant links:

L'Orfeo Barockorchester


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