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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Symphonies: No. 1, Op. 72 (1950) [39’52]; No. 4, Op. 80 (1957) [26’45].
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alun Francis (reciter).
Rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin on April 8th-11th, 2002 and July 2nd-4th, 2001. DDD
CPO 999 774-2 [66’38]

To explore the music of Ernst Toch is to be borne away by the spirit of discovery. Always there is the feeling of a fertile imagination at work, of a supremely capable compositional mind in control.

Previous encounters with Toch recordings on CPO have proved both fascinating and rewarding: String Quartets Nos. 11 and 13 and Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 . See my string quartet review for background on this composer.

An invaluable catalogue of Toch’s works is available on the Web . It confirms that the date for the Fourth Symphony is Summer 1957 (not 1947, as CPO’s booklet states). Toch wrote his symphonies between 1950 and 1964, the year of his death. A massively late starting point, one might argue given Toch was born in 1887; but what a flowering this is!.

The forty-minute First Symphony is a tour-de-force. Dedicated to Joseph Fuchs, the score is preceded by a quote from Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’; the line reads, ‘And if the world were full of devils’. Toch wrote the work in Vienna and it is fascinating to track its early performance history (in fact it is probable that an ‘early’ performance history is all we have - just to what extent has this fallen out of the repertory in Germany and Austria?). The première, in December 1950, was given by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Herbert Häfner (who recorded it on LP on EMA 101, Ed.), but just listen to the roll-call of names that took the work under their wing: Klemperer (Concertgebouw Orchestra, 1951), Keilberth (Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, 1952) and William Steinberg (Pittsburgh, 1953).

Toch’s aural imagination is immediately apparent in the mysterious, sliding string gestures that open the work, and the woodwind comments ... and listen to how the Berlin RSO’s section move as one! There is much to delight here, in the percussion-flecked moments, or in the playful imitation around 8’00. Listen also to the melodic doubles several octaves apart, leaving a massive ‘hole’, filled by oscillating woodwind figures. This is extremely effective writing.

The second movement begins with a dramatic brass call before settling into scurrying figures more fitting of a Scherzo function. The interruptive percussion barrage at around 5’40 must surely have been written tongue-in-cheek. A slow third movement begins with an extended unaccompanied flute solo - marvellously expressive on this recording. The movement is generally delicate and chromatically coloured, harmonically. The finale begins with what must surely have been a reference to (actually nearer to a quote from) the opening of the second part of Berg’s Violin Concerto, before embarking on a more Tochian trajectory of its own. Here the counterpoint is of a decidedly determined aspect, but held within a generally fantastical world. All credit to orchestra, conductor and recording team (Klaus Bischke, Producer; Henri Thaon, Engineer) for a magnificent realisation.

The Fourth Symphony was premièred in November 1957 (not 1947, as the booklet notes claim) by the Minneapolis Symphony under Antal Dorati. It was written for Marian MacDowell (widow of composer Edward), as an expression of ‘gratitude to a great woman of the American cultural scene’ (Toch). Mrs MacDowell ran an artists’ colony in New Hampshire, a creative retreat that Toch visited on several occasions. The score requires spoken words, reprinted in the booklet, but spoken in English, here by the conductor Alun Francis, that celebrate Mrs MacDowell’s achievements.

The generally excellent booklet notes surprise when they state that the first movement is ‘by far the longest of the three’ - well actually, only by 1 minute 42 seconds! There is a lamenting tone to the violins’ opening, long unison line, terrifically played here. It is together, in tune and fully in keeping with the music’s desolate nature. The solo flute’s long, almost shakuhachi-like solo around seven minutes in mirrors this perfectly. Toch’s achievement is that he marries an almost Bachian contrapuntal purity with evocative, meandering whisperings from a different world.

The skittish second movement is certainly dance-like in this cheeky performance - the wind are again a delight. Silvery colourings from the celesta caress the ear. In stark contrast comes the forthright octave of the finale’s opening and its ensuing plunging melodic lines. Later on, Toch enters a mysterious, internal world. The very ending disappears into nothing, aptly. Superb.

Recommended with all possible enthusiasm.

Colin Clarke


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