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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Cantata of the Bitter Herbs (1938) [39.51]
English and Hebrew texts supplied by Rabbi Jacob Sonderling and Don Alden.
Theodore Bikel, narrator;* Carol Meyer, soprano; Elizabeth Shammash, mezzo; Richard Clement, tenor; Prague Philharmonic Choir
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Recorded in the Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic, October 2000*
Jephta, Rhapsodic Poem (Symphony No 5, Op 89 [in one movement]) (1963) [25.26]
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Recorded Benaroya Hall, Seattle, Washington, USA, June 1998
Notes in English. English and Hebrew texts.



Born in Vienna, Toch was mostly self-taught, studying Mozart string quartets at an early age. A youthful musical adventurer, he was forced out of Europe by the Nazis and ended up in Hollywood writing film scores, for which he received many awards. Beginning with his piano music in the thirties, Toch’s later style was conservative, but never derivative, his innovations small but secure.

Although, as the titles of his works suggest, Toch was a very serious composer, his “Geographical Fugue” for chorus of speakers was performed as part of the first Hoffnung Music Festival. Although he generally wrote for a traditional orchestra, he pioneered the use of hissing and rattling sounds in ensembles. His Third Symphony won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1956, and in the 1957 recording by William Steinberg (recorded in a mosque!) made a stir at the time by featuring in the orchestra a “hisser,” a tank of compressed gas with a valve operated by the percussionist. It could achieve a “reverse cymbals” effect, starting soft and finishing loud. That recording, for years a frequently played hi-fi demonstration record, also featured one of the first appearances of the then new generation of electronic organs that could sound like real pipe organs. An organist friend of mine, when told he was to hear an electronic organ, walked out of the listening room when the record was put on, only to come sprinting back, mouth gaping in astonishment, when he heard the sound.

The Fifth Symphony is identifiably in the style of the Third (In the sense that all the Symphonies of Haydn are in the same style) with the same resourceful use of orchestral sounds and rhythms, but is a thoroughly original work. The Fifth is written in a single movement and does not divide itself into large blocks of similar mood but consists of a succession of episodes in varying moods and colours. It is considerably more abstract and less tuneful than Toch’s film music. Both performances are excellent and nearly identical, with the Francis being perhaps a little brighter and more energetic, the Schwarz slightly more sensual and atmospheric. Your choice will most likely be made on which coupling you prefer.

Toch’s song cycle The Chinese Flute drawing from the same material as Mahler in “The Song of the Earth,” utilised a snare drum in a small ensemble which provided an eerie rattling sound, very much in the mood of the poetry. This is one of the many exquisite recordings which cry out for re-release which originally appeared on the MGM LP label in the late 1950s

The Cantata of the Bitter Herbs was written in Los Angeles when Toch received a telegram from Vienna informing him of the sudden death of his mother. In his grief he sought out a synagogue for the first time in many years, feeling the need to rejoin the religious community. It is an immediate work suitable for family religious celebration, but enjoyable by persons of any faith for the beauty of the music and the nobility of its themes. No traditional melodies are used, all the themes are original, and the overall impression is what one would expect from a skilled writer of film scores. The performance is generally excellent, however the soprano’s tone is somewhat forced in expression of feeling, and the tenor is clearly uncomfortable with the high range of the writing. Bikel’s narration (*recorded in New York in 2003 and edited into the final master tape) bears just a trace of accent but is extremely clear and compelling.

Paul Shoemaker

Other Toch Recordings:

Symphony No. 3, Steinberg, Pittsburgh SO [ADD] EMI 7243 5 65868 2 6

Symphony No. 5, No. 6, No. 7, Alun Francis, Berlin Radio SO cpo 999 389-2

Song Cycle, [mono] MGM LP






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