> Ernst Toch String Quartets LR850CD [JW]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb-International

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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
String Quartet No 9 Op 26
String Quartet No 12 Op 70
Divertimenti Op 37 Nos 1 and 2

The Mendelssohn Quartet
Recorded Los Angeles 1991


Experience Classicsonline

Toch has never lacked for dedicated advocates. His discography has been recently enriched by CPO 999687-2, for example, which brings together the 11th and 13th Quartets whilst Talent DOM32 has the 12th and 15th. Laurel here gives us the seminal 9th and 12th with the significant addition of the Op 37 Divertimenti. It was, in fact, ever thus with Toch. The discographical position in the early 1950s saw major chamber works played by elite performers, often on obscure labels so one could find Toch himself as pianist with the Kaufman Quartet playing his own Quintet or the dedicated Louis Kaufman again essaying Tochs Op 25 Serenade on American Vox. Adventurous Toch-hunters doubtless tracked down his Op 70 Quartet (recorded on this Laurel CD) and played by the elite London String Quartet, fairly soon after its premiere, on a desperately obscure and rare Alco set.

The trajectory of his life is well-enough known Viennese, armed with rudimentary training he discovered the Mozart Quartets, then moved to Frankfurt to embark on studies proper. Rapid composition awards saw him to a post as teacher in Mannheim and later still a prestigious move to Berlin. After which, inevitably, came the traumatic move to California, composing for Hollywood and teaching widely, a devastating creative block and final rejuvenation beginning with that Op 70 Quartet. But it was with another talismanic Quartet, No 9 that his real composing life had begun. It was completed by Christmas 1919 after he had served on the Austrian-Italian Front, a traumatic time during which, apart from the Spitzweg Serenade, he had composed nothing. The quartet begins in media res with an immediate and compelling exchange of voices, not quite traditional in form, with an insistent lack of repetition but with obvious structural integrity. Only later does the first theme emerge and then on the Second Violin and leads to imitative counterpoint and freely expressive interplay between all four instruments. The Mendelssohn Quartet are particularly good at precise entry points and at elucidating the occasionally rather dissonant counterpoint; praise too for their unanimity of bow weight, an expressive quality well attuned to Tochs lyrical impulses. The Adagios contrapuntal linearity is affecting. If this sounds unduly intellectual then listen to the unfolding lyricism of this movement <sample 1> to understand Tochs astringent brand of freely developing melody that reaches a peak of intensity three quarters of the way through its ten-minute span. The resolute finale is clotted in non-traditional forms, again employing Tochs favoured evolutionary techniques to optimum advantage asymmetrical, contrastive, fully integrated and finally triumphantly fused. This then was the start of Tochs new compositional method and whilst its not an easy listen its invariably fascinating harmonically, textually and, not the least, rhythmically.

The Op 70 Quartet is the one that finally unlocked his compositional silence and opened out into his final creative phase. Written in 1946 it was first performed by the Paganini Quartet, led by Scottish born Henri Temianka, in Los Angeles in that year and, as noted above, received its first recording shortly afterwards by the London Quartet. Its quite possible that Toch knew the Londons cellist, the magnificent C. Warwick Evans from the latters recent employment in the Hollywood recording orchestras. The Op 70 is a remarkable work. It is intensely chromatic and fluid undulatory, angular, with different voices "leading" the instrumental texture. Chordal passages are dramatic and constantly evolving narratively. Metrical irregularity contrasts with the angularity of the cello part and its intense keening in the adagio. Material is varied in this movement and returns in the final section. The "Pensive Serenade" is lighter, with its disconcerting air of a Weimar song; supple rhythms, knocking-at-the-door pizzicatos from the cello, and the almost vocal contributions of the middle voices <sample 2>. Toch had a real ear for colour as well as a sophisticated rhythmic and melodic profile. The energetic finale full of informal effects, resonant unison playing, thinning single lines, small motivic cells is yet another example of his liking for creative momentum, of fluidity of thought in action. In every way it bears out his belief in the evolutionary and organic nature of composition.

The first Divertimento Op 37/1 was premiered by members of the Vienna Quartet. Brief but varied it was a Schott prizewinner in 1926 and is a free duet, full of subtle complexities and textual possibilities. The Second, a bigger and more obviously virtuosic work, was arranged for cello by Piatigorsky for performance with Heifetz in the 1960s. They recorded it in 1965. Especially attractive is the affecting string writing and the passing between the two voices of the adagio. A rondo finale is full of pizzicatos, glissandos, double trills and the whole gamut of virtuoso fireworks <sample 3>. The pensive little Dedication was written for the wedding of Tochs daughter in 1948 a surprisingly withdrawn piece for such an occasion.

The Mendelssohn Quartet perform truly admirably; the acoustic is dry and rather over close but nothing can dim the resources intellectual and instrumental of this fine group and they bring to this music an integrity and a conviction that makes this disc required listening.

Jonathan Woolf


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