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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Symphony for Piano and Orchestra (2nd Piano Concerto), Op. 61 1 (1933) [31:17]
Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 64 2 (1938) [37:14]
1 2 Diane Andersen (piano)
Staatskapelle Halle/Hans Rotman
2 Danel Quartet – Marc Danel, Gilles Millet (violins); Tony Nys (viola); Guy Danel (cello)
rec. Steintor Theatre Hall, Halle, Germany (concerto); Concertgebouw, Bruges, Belgium (quintet). No dates given
TALENT RECORDS DOM 2929 70 [68:31]

Note: Talent have confirmed that although the CD insert and disc indicate this is Toch's Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 38 it is in fact his Symphony for Piano and Orchestra (Second Piano Concerto) Op. 61.

Be warned, if you know little or nothing about Ernst Toch don’t rely on the liner-notes. Not only are they poorly translated they’re also inaccurate, as a visit to the Ernst Toch Archive website at UCLA will confirm. Not an auspicious start, then, but what of the music?

Born in Vienna in 1887, Toch was a concert pianist and self-taught composer. He won the Mendelssohn prize for composition in 1910, taking up a teaching position at the music college in Mannheim three years later. His most productive period seems to have been from 1934 onwards, when he dabbled in most genres, including opera and film. He left Europe before the war and, like Schoenberg and Korngold, settled in California. Some of his best work was yet to come, his Third Symphony picking up a Pulitzer in 1956.

Toch was reasonably prolific; there are some 30 or so available recordings listed at online CD sites, mainly the symphonies, the cello concerto and chamber works. Interestingly, some are coupled with pieces by Hindemith, Schreker and Weill, which may give you some idea of Toch’s compositional style.

Certainly the Symphony for Piano and Orchestra – his second piano concerto – sounds closer to Schreker and Weill than Hindemith. Although there is a neo-classical formality to the work – it is in four movements – there is also an element of fun and fantasy in the writing, with sparkling textures and an opening piano salvo at 1:24 that is strongly reminiscent of Prokofiev. Although Toch may have been considered avant-garde in pre-war Europe there is nothing remotely dry or ‘difficult’ about this concerto; indeed the first movement is full of bustle and general joie de vivre.

The mischievous opening to the second movement – Lebhaft – is pure Prokofiev, with some perky interjections from the woodwinds later on. The recording is exceptionally transparent in both its Red Book and SACD forms, which highlights the composer’s many colouristic touches. The sombre rocking theme that starts the third movement is never ponderous, although perhaps one might wish for a weightier string sound at times. That said Rotman and his band shape this Mahlerian Adagio with great feeling. Only the entry of the piano breaks the spell, bringing with it another melancholic strand that culminates in two quiet – and entirely unexpected – tam-tam strokes.

The final movement – Cyclus Variabilis – is the longest and perhaps the most eclectic of all. It has a strong Bartókian flavour, with rhapsodic bursts from the piano and much spikier orchestral textures. And surely those bass lines have more than a hint of Berg about them? These comparisons aside, one is constantly struck by Toch’s lucid, chamber-like scoring, especially in the movement’s more spectral passages.

But this is also a piano concerto and Diane Andersen’s controlled virtuosity is well judged, especially in those fevered passages that begin at 8:40. True, the ascerbic brass and percussion probably sound like Weill, but make no mistake this is not mere pastiche. That final tam-tam stroke is another of those quirky Tochian touches – unheralded but wonderfully apt.

The Staatskapelle Halle, a relatively new ensemble formed in 1948, is recorded in a pleasing acoustic, with a near ideal balance between piano and orchestra. Andersen, a pupil of Stefan Askenase, is a champion of less well known music, including Toch, with whom she seems to have a genuine affinity. Textures are admirably clear, rhythms well defined and the orchestra is commendably alert, alive to all those competing musical influences.

That is certainly the abiding impression in the Quintet for piano and strings. Also cast in four movements – The Lyrical Part, The Whimsical Part, The Contemplative Part and The Dramatic Part – this work is a strange mix of drollery and gravitas. Recorded in the rather unprepossessing Concertgebouw, Bruges, the sound is more up-front than before. That’s no bad thing, as the instrumental strands are always easily discernible. Guy Danel’s expressive cello playing is particularly enjoyable, Andersen now much more of a partner in the mix. And yes it sounds surprisingly lyrical, despite its more declamatory style.

The Danel Quartet pride themselves on tackling a wide repertoire, from Beethoven to Bartók and Shostakovich, and they certainly deliver plenty of the latter’s tang and bite when called for. The last three minutes of the first movement are marvellously done, simultaneously inward and ardent. If one is looking for comparisons here the Shostakovich E minor Piano Trio, Op. 67, comes to mind.

Predictably The Whimsical Part has a fleeting, mercurial quality, never quite settling in one mode or mood. The Contemplative Part has some hushed and introspective string writing – the piano doesn’t appear until much later – and there’s the sense of a mature and original talent at work. There is a touching wistfulness too – just listen to those rising figures that peak and start to fall gently from 8:55 onwards.

Nothing genteel about the whirling final movement, with its run of pizzicato strings and tangled melodies. This is Toch with a glint in his eye, full of high spirits and genial good humour. The players attack the music with great fervour and flair, bringing out the movement’s more astringent harmonies. But it is their sheer weight and intensity of focus that is most impressive.

Talent have done a sterling job with this release, both sonically and artistically, but what a pity the packaging and liner-notes are so crude and amateurish. Carping aside, this is confident, fully formed music that really ought to be better known. Well worth a handful of your hard-earned shekels.

Dan Morgan


And a further perspective from Rob Barnett

CPO have done proud by Toch's symphonies and they also have a selection of his numerous quartets. He is now no stranger to the catalogue. His life story is recounted elsewhere but its geographical centres are Vienna and the USA. This is perhaps glimpsed in the music on this disc from DOM Talent.

The Symphony for Piano and Orchestra also rejoices under the title of Second Piano Concerto. In this duality Toch was not alone. Josef Holbrooke's Eighth Symphony for Piano and Orchestra is also designated as his Third Piano Concerto. As for the Toch work it is in four movements. The first two are a lively confection pulled between various poles. The sardonic writing is redolent of early Shostakovich. One can also hear the glint and glitter of Prokofiev, a dash of jazz, a soupcon of Stravinsky's wiry neo-classicism and the shadow of a roughly contemporaneous work: John Ireland's Piano Concerto. Toch calls a halt for the more romantic adagio - relaxed in one sense yet tense with the harmonic ambiguity of Mahler's string writing. We return to the fantastical, frenetic and spikily macabre for the long Cyclus Variabilis finale which ends enigmatically with a mysterious tam-tam stroke. The premiere, which was to have taken place in Germany, was frustrated by the arrival of the Nazis. In fact the first performance took place during Toch’s exile in London and the conductor was Henry Wood in 1933-34.

The Quintet was commissioned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The composer seems to have reset his compass for the first movement which sounds a little like one of those surgingly romantic-impressionist chamber works by Bonnal or Ropartz. The hectic yet quiet frenetics return as familiar territory from the op. 61 work in the second movement. Once again the third movement is in adagio mode yet this time with references to the honeyed ambivalence of Zemlinsky and Karl Weigl. The finale is a wild hay-ride of stony brilliance, straining tocsins and tense dissonant work for the strings. The movements are entitled The Lyrical Part, The Whimsical Part, The Contemplative Part; The Dramatic Part.

I heard this hybrid SACD in its standard CD format in which it sounded forthright and strong.

Rob Barnett


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