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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Tanz-Suite for Flute, Clarinet, Violin, Viola, Double Bass and Percussion, Op.30  (1923-4) [29:53] *
Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, Op.35 (1924-5) [27:10]
Christian Poltéra (cello); Spectrum Concerts Berlin: Priya Mitchell*, Julia-Maria Kretz (violin); Hartmut Rohde* (viola); Frank Dodge (cello); Stacey Watton* (double-bass); Marieke Schneemann* (flute); Nigel Shore (oboe); Lars Wouters van der Oudenwijer* (clarinet); Catherine Maguire (bassoon); Bernhard Krug (horn); Daniel Tummes* (percussion) / Thomas Carroll.
rec. 1-3 May 2006 *; 3 May 2006; Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie, Berlin
NAXOS 8.559282 [57:35]


Though there has undoubtedly been an upsurge of interest in the music of Ernst Toch over the last fifteen years or so, as evidenced by a number of recordings (see links to reviews below), it cannot really be said that he now occupies any kind of settled place in the modern mainstream. He seems doomed to remain to some extent an outsider, perhaps not inappropriately given the circumstances of his life and career.

Toch was one of the many musicians whose lives were disrupted and distorted by the ascendancy of the Nazis. Escaping actual death at their hands, his career as a composer was robbed of the possibility of organic development.

Born in Vienna, Toch had established himself as a significant composer in Weimar Germany by the 1920s. Compositions such as the Piano Concerto, premiered in 1926 by Walter Gieseking (conducted by Hermann Scherchen), his early quartets and piano sonatas, his opera Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (1927), all served to raise him to a position of some prominence. His music merited discussion in the context of the work of such figures as Berg, Krenek, Weill and Hindemith. With the rise of Hitler – the significance of which Toch realised sooner than some of his even less fortunate fellows – he took an early opportunity to flee abroad. In April 1933 he was attending a musicological conference in Florence; instead of returning to Germany he made his way to Paris and then to London, where his wife and young daughter joined him; in 1934 the young family moved to America.

It took Toch the composer a very long while to recover from this major fracture and dislocation. He taught (one pupil, indeed, was Andre Previn) and he wrote film scores. Between 1934 and 1950 he wrote relatively little ‘serious’ music. From about 1950 until his death, however, he began to write with real energy and commitment again – producing, amongst other important works, seven symphonies, a further opera and a number of chamber works.

The works on this outstanding disc, however, come from his years in Germany. To say that the music makes one think, at one time or another, of Stravinsky or Weill, of Prokofiev or even Milhaud (the Milhaud of Création du Monde) does not, emphatically not, make him a derivative imitator; such names are invoked, rather, to indicate the kinds of music the unfamiliar listener will hear hinted at and alluded to in these works, and to suggest that it is not absurd to think of these early works in the context of such names – this is fine music, eclectically modernist but altogether accessible.

The six movements of the dance suite are delightfully inventive. The first movement (Roter Wirbeltanz) is intensely energetic, but some, at least, of its intensity carries an edge of threat, as if the composer was already aware of the dangers building up, the political intensities and energies which were later to disturb so much. There’s an edge of menace, too, in the second movement (Tanz des Grauens), especially in some of the pizzicato writing for strings and some biting passages for clarinet. The first Intermezzo (Fliessende Achtel) is less troubled, but fades away before it can really insist on a change of mood, before it can affirm the possibility of any emotional stability or simplicity. Complexity and emotional irony return in the Tanz des Schweigens, with a sense of foreboding, although the possibility of contentment is hinted at too. The fifth movement is another Intermezzo (Lebhaft) is acerbically assertive, a reminder, perhaps of the destructive threats hinted at earlier in the work. The last movement – the longest – carries the title Tanz des Erwachens; it opens in a sense of mystery, and seems to chart a transition from darkness into light, even if a hesitant light. Toch’s musical digestive system seems to have processed materials from both Debussy and Wagner, certainly both are present here, though both are finally subsumed in a conclusion which one might describe as Toch’s reinscription of the Viennese Waltz – and the work ends on a note of optimism (without ever encouraging the listener to forget the threats, the glances at the macabre and the hints of destructive madness which mark some of its earlier movements). A fine, subtle piece, which, while accessible and entertaining, certainly doesn’t give up its secrets easily – I shall certainly want (need) to listen to it many more times.

Cellists ought to be queuing up to play the Concerto. It is a beautiful piece, and it is not hard to understand its early popularity – Emanuel Feuermann, who gave the premiere, is said to have performed it some sixty times in Germany in the late 1920s. It is full of complex – but not confusing – rhythmic twists and turns, but full also of a slightly acerbic lyricism. Written for chamber orchestra – and the resources are brilliantly exploited – the sound textures are always transparent, making it easier to follow Toch’s interesting musical argument. All four movements have pleasures to offer, whether it be the elegant second movement (marked agitato) or the well-made finale and the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. But the outstanding movement is perhaps the Adagio, with some quite gorgeous writing for the cello, richly expressive and beautifully integrated into the ensemble writing as the movement goes on.

The performances here are all that one could ask. They are – of course – technically assured; but far more than that they are both thoughtful and passionate (like Toch’s music), both committed and ironic (ditto). The recorded sound is excellent. The very same programme was recorded by the cellist Susanne Műller-Hornbach and the Mutare Ensemble in 1999 and issued on cpo 999 668-2 (see review by Jonathan Woolf ). I haven’t heard that recording, so I can make no kind of comparison. I find it hard, though, to imagine that it can be significantly better than this new version – even if there is a certain sad irony in the fact that it should be issued in the Naxos American Classics series.

Glyn Pursglove

Links to other reviews of Toch's music:

http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2004/Jun04/Toch1_4.htm; http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2006/Apr06/Toch_symphonies_7771912.htm; http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2002/Mar02/Toch_quartets.htm; http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2001/sept01/Toch_cello.htm; http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Sep05/toch_cantata_8559417.htm; http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2005/Feb05/Toch_Piano.htm

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