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Ernst TOCH (1887-1946)
String Quartet No. 7 Op. 15 [1907]
String Quartet No. 10 Op. 28 [1923]
Dedication [1948]
Buchberger Quartett
Rec. Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Cologne, January/March 2001
String Quartets Volume 4
CPO 999 775-2 [59.55]

 

The more I listen to the music of Ernst Toch the most fascinated I become. His output is mainly represented by string quartets and symphonies which CPO have been making available to us now for some eight years. Yet for years I only knew of him by his clever and typically original piece ‘Geographical Fugue’ which is laid out for speaking chorus.

A Jewish émigré to America, Toch was successful for a brief time in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. He read the times wisely and escaped Hitler’s Germany at just the right moment. Unable to revive his earlier success he scratched a living as a film music composer and teacher before retiring,. This permitted him a golden final twenty years when the symphonies appeared in a rush as well as more quartets. His music displays a very singular and experienced composer with something to say but in a language sometimes difficult to grasp.

Anyway I leap ahead. We should start with the 7th Quartet. Actually it’s the second to have survived; the first five, which must all date from before 1907, have disappeared. It is a romantic work but also influenced by classical models. As a youth Toch would copy out Mozart quartets, he was so fascinated by them. In the process he taught himself how they were structurally put together and how ideas were formulated. Strangely enough it is Haydn that I hear as a direct model in this work. The third movement beginning with a motif which returns in a classical type of Rondo form is marked Vivace. The fourth movement begins with typically Haydnesque rhythms and then continues to develop them in a playful manner. Romantic harmonies peculate throughout. One can quite see why that arch-academic (would you forgive me if I call him an ‘old fart’) Max Reger thought so highly of the work that he awarded Toch the Mozart prize. This conferred a lucrative scholarship to study in Mannheim and was enough to convince the Toch family that music should be his career.

It was only a question of time before Toch would start to discover his voice and move off in new directions. He was a late developer, not technically but personally and its only in the last twenty years of his life that his unique musical voice emerged. This factor has been largely overlooked until now.

Before I move onto the 10th Quartet a brief word about the single movement four-minute ‘Dedication’ which comes between the two main works. It is slow, delicate and lyrical and is dedicated to Toch’s daughter Franzi on the occasion of her marriage in 1948. It is a work impossible to place within the context of a concert but well worth exploring and repeating.

The 10th Quartet now comes as a surprise. Its aggressive unison opening immediately demands your attention. For the quartet’s entire thirty minutes I was firmly held by this music. It dates from 1923 and must have appeared quite modern at the time. The material uses the name ‘Bass’ his cousin’s surname. This was the same cousin who gave him a complete Mozart edition. The quartet was composed as a thank-you to him. The work allows for a group of four notes (Bb A Eb Eb) or just a three note group to act as a recurring motif. These notes are sometimes transposed. Not surprisingly the first movement marked ‘Energisch’ is almost Bergian in it obsessive intensity focused on this single figure. The captivating second movement is a very long Adagio but I have found it most beautiful and superbly crafted for a string quartet. His third movement is marked ‘Kotzenzhaft schleichend’ which I believe can be translated ‘slinking, like a cat’. Lasting less than four minutes it is a muted scherzo which inhabits a sinister nocturnal landscape. The finale inhabits more the air of the first movement and brings the work to a gripping conclusion. I was reminded somewhat of the string music by that tragic Terezin-based composer, Gideon Klein.

There are thirteen Toch quartets and this, my first experience of them, will lead me to investigate them further.

The Buchberger Quartett is given a useful biographical sketch by the excellent booklet annotator Constanze Stratz. They are a fine and well respected group, established as long ago as 1974. However I do find that the first violin’s intonation in high passages is occasionally grating and the recording a little lacking in space. I found it best to turn the treble well down which might be generally recommendable.

As mentioned the booklet is helpful with a biography of Toch and just the right kind of analysis of the music movement by movement.

Highly recommended.

Gary Higginson

See also

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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