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If it’s the Czech works you’re after, do not hesitate

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Symphony no 1, Op. 72 (1951-1952) [39:52]
Symphony no 2, Op. 73 (1953) [32:20]
Symphony no 3, Op. 75 (1955) [27:49]
Symphony no 4, Op. 80 (1957) [26:45]
Symphony no 5, Op. 89 Jephtha (1963) [23:51]
Symphony no 6, Op. 93 (1963) [22:25]
Symphony no 7, Op. 95 (1964) [22:18]
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alun Francis
rec. Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin, Germany (1995 - 2002) DDD
CPO 777 191-2 [3 CDs: 66:38 + 60:11 + 68:58]

Here is another cleverly assembled complete box from CPO. Once again - as they did with Milhaud, Rangström, Frankel, Atterburg and Peterson-Berger - CPO have plundered their catalogue to create an intégrale to tempt the Toch first timer. The cover is new and so is the rear insert but inside the old-fashioned double-width case are three CDs and three separate booklets, the latter exactly as printed for the original issues.

All seven Toch symphonies date from his years in the States. The First Symphony was written when he was 63. Its textures are busy - almost fussily so - and much of the writing has a determined fugal quality that carries over into the flighty second movement. The third movement opens with a long and desolate flute solo which sounds rather like Debussy’s Faune having woken to a cold dawn. The finale rises from silence with a dissonant and disillusioned call to arms - one of those dodecaphonic sun-rises. The modernism here is not extreme but is still quite unmistakable. The effect is softened a little by the atonal singing of the violins at 2:02 and the trumpet’s outlined elegy quietly intoned. It is as if in memory of the sorrowing fanfare that acts as signature for Franz Schmidt’s Fourth Symphony. I got to know this work from a tape dub of an LP made by the very artists who premiered the work in Austria on 22 December 1950: the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Herbert Häfner. The LP was EMA 101. That tape, while still of archive interest, can now be pensioned off.

The Fourth Symphony is dedicated to Marian MacDowell, the widow of the composer Edward MacDowell whose Peterborough artists’ colony served as retreat and refuge for several composers including Toch. Toch’s text, to be read between movements I and II and II and III of this three movement work, is printed in the booklet. Here it is spoken by the conductor. The words to be end with ‘What you released in me / Must return to you’. These words are included at the end of the tracks carrying the first and second movements. The music is gently dissonant like the Shostakovich of the 1930s but rises to a protesting clamour then sinks into an ethereal shimmer on the horizon - magical! Again it is good to be able to relegate to storage my tape of Dorati’s premiere with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra.

The Second Symphony followed hot on the heels of the First - some parallels with Martinů here! If the First Symphony has its unlikely links with Luther, of all people, the troubled and anguished Second carries the superscription ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ (Genesis 32:26). The dedication is to Albert Schweitzer - a man he had never met or corresponded with. The work was premiered by Häfner and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra who had also introduced the First Symphony. In this work Toch finds his feet. The sehr leicht second movement flies along with winged heels - atonal Mendelssohn? The music has both fantasy and nobility with many ingratiating and inventive touches. The final pages are remarkable for their off-key piano-accented triple forte martellato. After the thudding kettle drums the work ends with an almost Beethovenian pay-off. This is a work I will be returning to.

The Third Symphony was awarded the 1956 Pulitzer Prize for music: http://www.nndb.com/honors/482/000062296/

The award was made for original use of new instruments including a Hammond organ, glass balls (instead of a vibraphone), a wooden box containing wooden balls and three horns mounted on a board and fed with compressed air. A witty central movement includes a stiff-legged tip-toe introduction that is to return Tippett-like in the finale. Again the music is modernistic but not outright avant-garde. The final sprint is a display of uproarious virtuosity. It would be interesting to know how this disc compares with the reading by William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recorded on Capitol shortly after they had premiered it on 2 December 1955. It was reissued as part of the EMI Matrix series in the 1990s on EMI 7243 5 65868 2 6.

The third disc has the last three symphonies, each playing for between 22 and 24 minutes. Like Rubbra and Alwyn, Toch had become more concise and concentrated over the years; not that any one of the symphonies is of epic proportions. Jephta, the Fifth Symphony, subtitled Rhapsodic Poem has been recorded before ... several times. There was a late Louisville tape. This first appeared on LP in 1965 a couple of years after Toch’s death. I know that recording by Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra from its presence on an Albany CD (TROY021-2) from 1989. It was recently reissued by Matt Walters as part of his ambitious First Edition series on FECD035 with other Louisville recordings of Peter Pan, Notturno and the Miniature Overture. Both Albany and First Edition lack the brilliance of this tense reading by Alun Francis whose sense of the cataclysm has perhaps been deepened by his involvement in CPO’s cycle of the Pettersson symphony series. There’s also a more relaxed reading by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra as part of the Naxos Milken series (8.559417).

The Sixth Symphony was written in the same year the Fifth was completed. It is often playful, bubbling and light-hearted - almost Prokofiev Kijé - but with scathing dissonant asides intervening. Gritty brass writing and singing sprung strings, a Mexican trumpet fanfare, serene and nostalgic chamber asides of cheery Viennese disposition recalling the First Symphony. All these are part of the fantastic paraphernalia employed. Wonderful to hear this music in good sound after years of some familiarity via a tape of the Swiss radio premiere by the South German Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Helmut Wesseltherer. The Seventh Symphony has a thoughtful first movement, another playful gift of a central movement and a tormented then smilingly musing Allegro risoluto.

The helpful notes are by Toch’s grandson, Lawrence Weschler.

Toch took hard the comparative obscurity of his declining years in the USA. He complained to close friends that he had been a dachshund in the States where in years decayed and lost he had been a St Bernard in Germany. While his entanglements with Hollywood did not deliver the sort of success garnered by Korngold he still rated performances by Koussevitsky, Dorati, Steinberg and many other leading figures in the American musical firmament. Listening to these lucidly scored symphonies in which fantasy is often loosed off he had no reason to doubt his powers. Among these seven symphonies the Second and Third are the prizes though all have riches to disclose on repeat hearings.

Rob Barnett

Complementary Reviews:
Symphonies 1, 4
Symphonies 2, 3

 

 



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