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Ernst TOCH (1887–1964)
Violin Sonata No. 2, op.44 (1928) [13:16]

Burlesken, for piano, op.31 (1923) [9:28]

Three Impromptus, for cello, op.90c (1963) [9:11]

Piano Quintet, op.64 (1938) [37:02]

Spectrum Concerts Berlin (Annette von Hehn (violin), Julia–Maria Kretz (violin), Hartmut Rohde (viola), Frank Dodge (cello), Daniel Blumenthal (piano))

rec. 4-5 May 2007, 20-21 December 2007 (Piano Quintet only), Siemens Villa, Berlin DDD
NAXOS 8.559324 [68:57] 


Experience Classicsonline

For too many years, Ernst Toch was a figure rarely encountered, certainly never in the concert hall (in over 40 years of concert going I’ve never heard a work of his live) and seldom on record. There have been some valuable LP recordings of his work – William Steinberg and the Pittsburg Symphony recorded the 3rd Symphony, which they commissioned, on Capitol (P8364 and it was re-issued in the 1990s in the EMI Matrix series
EMI 5658682) and it’s a fine performance. The 5th Symphony was recorded by the Louisville Orchestra, under Robert Whitney (now available on TROY 0212 with music by other composers or on Louisville First Edition FECD035 where it is coupled with other Louisville recordings of Toch’s Peter Pan, Notturno and the Miniature Overture).  An handful of chamber works appeared over the years on various American labels – the 1st Violin Sonata and some piano music on Mainstream S502, together with the notorious Geographical Fugue for speaking chorus. More recently, CPO has done Toch proud by recording the complete Symphonies and String Quartets as well as the fine Cello Concerto and the Dance Suite, op.30. 

So why has it taken so long for us to catch up with this composer? I think the answer is fairly easy to find. There’s the obvious time it takes, after the death of a composer, for the public to “re-discover” him even though, to some of us, he never went away! – Alan Rawsthorne, for instance, has only recently started to gain the recognition he deserves, thanks, mainly, to Naxos’s major series of recordings of his music – but the second reason is more pertinent. Toch’s music is non-tonal. It isn’t atonal, far from it, but he treats tonality with a very free mind, and because of this, his music doesn’t flow as easily as some – Hindemith for instance. There are, I have always felt, to be similarities with Hindemith, the same bluff sense of humour, the same questioning use of form and tonality, the superb craftsmanship in the construction of their works. But Hindemith is a more tonal composer and thus it’s easier to follow his argument, even in his biggest instrumental works, such as the Die Harmonie der Welt Symphony (a work well worth getting to know in Blomstedt’s magnificent San Francisco recording on Decca 4752642). But I digress. 

So what do we have on this disk? A bright and zesty Violin Sonata gets things off to a sparkling start. It’s quite short but really full of good things. The Burlesken are a different matter. The word "burlesque" derrives from the italian burla, which means a joke, or the original French word burlesque, which confirms a piece of art as ridiculous and slightly outrageous, but mainly in a funny way. Basically, burlesque means "in an upside down style". These three pieces certainly do that. Ths first one is serious, but yet it has a quirkiness about it, the fast middle one continues the idiosyncrasy, whilst the final piece, named The Jugglar, is a rollicking encore piece. The Three Impromptus for solo cello are from a much later period in Toch’s life and they’re more thoughtful, more contemplative, more subtly humorous. 

The main work here is a big Piano Quintet and the names of the four movements – The Lyrical Part, The Whimsical Part, The Contemplative Part and The Dramatic Part – seem to sum up Toch’s compositional outlook. The first, lyrical, movement is rich and thickly textured with a strong vein of lyricism and Toch keeps a forward driving Allegro tempo until the end, when a slow, quiet, coda brings matters to rest. The Whimsical Part is a skittish scherzo with contrasting middle section, it is most comical and not, perhaps, what you might expect from this composer. The Contemplative Part is full of gentle lyricism, and there’s a touch of real pathos. The Dramatic Part is all headlong rush and terse argument and, this might come as a surprise, there’s more than a slight hint of Korngold in some of the writing! 

Ernst Toch is a very fine composer and it is to be hoped that we can now get to grips with his large and varied catalogue. He deserves our attention and this excellent disk, with fine performances and crystal clear recording, is another step along the way.

Bob Briggs 

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf


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