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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
String Quartets – No. 11, Op. 34 (1924); No. 13, Op. 74 (1953).
Buchberger String Quartet.
Recorded in the Evangelische Kirche, Köln-Rondorf on March 22nd-24th, 1999 (Op. 34) and May 10th-12th, 1999 (Op. 74). [DDD]
CPO 999 687-2 [55.35]

 

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Ernst Toch’s musical training was minimal. By literally copying out the scores of Mozart String Quartets he found that Mozart ‘not only replaced ... every living teacher but outdid them all’. Initially, he composed in secret, but in 1909 he won the Mozart Prize and a musical career seemed inevitable. He attained a teaching position at the Mannheim Music Academy in 1913, leaving only in 1929 to go to Berlin. But things were to go awry with the rise of anti-Semitism and he made his way to Los Angeles where the popularity and respect he had been accorded in Berlin were never to return. His rate of composition fell dramatically and he wrote only eight works between 1933 and 1945 (as opposed to more than 35 between 1919 and 1933). Eventually, in 1948 he suffered a heart attack that led to a reassessment of his Weltanschauung and a renewed burst of activity, writing seven symphonies within a short period.

Toch’s initial experiences with the Mozart String Quartets left an indelible mark, and there is a freedom of invention in the two quartets on this disc that makes repeated playing a necessity. When I first heard the Eleventh Quartet, it made such an impression that after playing it, I immediately had to hear it again. And several hearings later, there still appears to be an endless store of riches ahead. This piece was written in response to a commission from Hindemith for the Donauschingen Music Festival of 1924. Its stature was quickly recognized and it was repeatedly taken up by quartets on both sides of the Atlantic.

The expressionist lyricism of the first movement is frequently reminiscent of the music of Alban Berg. It exhibits similar sorts of yearning, aching lines, not to mention ferocious difficulties for the performers The Buchberger Quartet triumph over the technical and rhythmic challenges to go straight to the angst which lies at the heart of this piece. The third movement's concentration is close to that inherent in the late Beethoven Quartets, while the final Allegro molto is imbued with Bartókian energy.

The String Quartet No. 13 was commissioned by the Coleman Chamber Music Association of Pasadena in 1953. It is based on Toch’s individual response to dodecaphony, a procedure about which he had initially harboured doubts. It is certainly not based on pure Schoenbergian principles – the first subject of the first movement is a sequence of five tone rows in sequence, for example. It is really a virtuoso act of serial thought. The shadow of Beethoven is also here, however, in the concentration of the first part of the first movement (whereafter the music becomes more flighty and nervous) and in the gritty determination of the last movement.

The Buchberger Quartet brings a luminous conviction to these performances which makes this disc unmissable. The fact that CPO are issuing the disc at their ‘Special Price’ is just the icing on the cake. This is a valuable addition to the Toch discography: for further listening, String Quartets Nos. 12 and 15 are available on Talent DOM32 (played by the Brande String Quartet), and the Second and Third Symphonies are also on CPO played by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra under Alun Francis (999 705-2).

Colin Clarke

 


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