> TOCH Symphonies Francis 9997052 [CC]: Classical Reviews- May2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Symphonies No. 2, Op. 73 and No. 3, Op. 75.
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Alun Francis
Recorded in the Jesus-Christus Kirche, Berlin in April and June 1999.
CPO 999 705-2 [DDD] [60’11]



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Reviewing the Buchberger String Quartets of Toch’s Eleventh and Thirteenth Quartets (also on CPO, 999 687-2), I confessed to being bowled over by the composer’s seeming super-abundance of invention, and towards the end of my review I referred to this disc, originally issued in 2000. It would indeed appear that the symphonies are as worthy of consideration as the quartets. Toch’s symphonies are products of his compositional Indian Summer: the Second was composed in 1951; the Third in 1955. The Second is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer, and Toch added the words, ‘I will not go until you bless me’ from Genesis after completion. It is scored for standard orchestra, to which two harps, organ and piano duet are added. The musical argument is taut and serious, the mood frequently angst-ridden. The very opening of the symphony sets the scene perfectly: distorted, arresting fanfares capture the attention, and Toch’s closely argued structure never allows the concentration to drop. The mastery of counterpoint is particularly impressive.

The performance is good. Only a bad trumpet split that should have been re-taken two minutes into the piece betrays a lack of available studio and/or editing time. Much more important is the way Francis and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra capture the shadowy nature of the scherzo (‘sehr leicht’) and the way they follow the tempo direction of the Adagio to show it in the best possible light: ‘Adagio ma non strascinare,’ Adagio, ‘but not dragging’.

The Third Symphony of four years later won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956, having been commissioned to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish community in the United States. Here Toch adds a Hammond organ and ‘glass balls’ to the orchestra (a vibraphone may be substituted for the latter), as well as some new instruments, like the ‘rotarion’, a wooden box containing wooden balls which makes a rumbling sound when moved. Toch saw himself continuing the line of Richard Strauss (who has used a wind machine in his Alpine Symphony) and Antheil (who had used aeroplane propellers as part of his armoury). The Third Symphony was premièred by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under William Steinberg, and a recording by them briefly appeared in the UK on EMI Matrix CDM5 65868-2. If anything the Third inspires Francis and his orchestra to even greater heights. The ‘march’ of the first movement is simply stunningly played, as is the Andante tranquillo second movement. The finale, marked ‘Allegro impetuoso’, is imbued with a busy energy (it also contains another angular call-to-arms).

All in all this is a superb disc of wonderfully fascinating music just waiting to be discovered. Perhaps there is even more freedom of compositional imagination in the string quartet disc mentioned above, but that does not make these symphonies any less riveting.

Colin Clarke

see also Toch cello works

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