Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Die Chinesische Flöte - Chamber Symphony for 14 soloists and soprano, op.29 (1922) [25:50]
Five Pieces for wind instruments and percussion, op.83 (1959) [17:04]
Egon and Emilie, for coloratura soprano, speaker and seven wind instruments, op.46 (1928) [13:57]
Quartet for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and viola (1964) [8:17]
Maria Karb (soprano: op. 29)
Britta Ströher (soprano: op. 46)
Mutare Ensemble/Gerhard Müller-Hornbach
rec. Sendesaal, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt-am-Main, 1-2 May 2004; 3-5 November 1999 [op.29]; Grosser Saal, Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst, Frankfurt-am-Main, 10-11 September 2007 [op.83]. DDD
CPO 777 092-2 [65:16]
Ernst Toch's discography is mainly in the hands of German label CPO, with some support from Naxos, who once paid CPO the ultimate tribute by copying their exact programming - see review here, which also has links to further reviews of Toch's music. For the last decade CPO have been issuing recordings of Toch's symphonies - see review of the triple-disc complete set - and string quartets. This latest release highlights some of his wind music, from opposite ends of his career.
Die Chinesische Flöte ('The Chinese Flute') will be familiar to many as the source of Mahler's texts for his Das Lied von der Erde. Its 1949 premiere recording reappeared in 2008 on the German Profil - aka Hänssler - label as volume 26 of their Staatskapelle Dresden series (PH 07043). There are three sections, 'The Mysterious Flute', 'The Rat' and 'The Lot of Man', subdivided into six tracks. The first two of Hans Bethge's poems are after Li Tai Po, whereas the third is quintessential Confucius. In fact, from a literary point of view, the three texts have little to do with each other: it is the subtle, sometimes mesmerising, quasi-oriental music, particularly the flute, which links the otherwise fairly discrete ideas. Toch gives the poetry plenty of space, with purely instrumental sections, recorded as separate tracks, between the texts, and always spare textures. The first movement is marked 'sehr gemessen', and is a languid introduction to and by the flute, which plays atmospherically almost throughout. Maria Karb sings with fine intonation and intelligent phrasing what is a very varied and difficult part.
Egon und Emilie appeared last year on a Channel Classics disc - see this warm review, which describes the work in some detail. The track-listing inside the booklet wrongly gives the opus number as 29 - the correct number is 46, as given on the back inlay. This quirky, jerky, tricky piece is well acted and convincingly sung by Brigitte Ströher and well measured by the Mutare Ensemble. Norbert Hardegen, who plays Egon, is rather wooden, and his voice does echo a little. The wind instruments are closely miked, perhaps a bit too close for comfort in the shriller passages.
Most of Toch's chamber works are written for strings, particularly string quartet, but towards the end of his life especially he began writing for wind instruments. The Five Pieces op.83 were composed in 1959, along with a Sonatinetta for flute, clarinet and bassoon, op.84. In 1964, his last year, he added a Sinfonietta op.97, for strengthened but otherwise similar forces to the Five Pieces. The Quartet op.98 was Toch's last completed work, published three years after his death, written for the unusual combination of oboe, clarinet, bassoon and viola. This may be the work's first recording, at least on CD - the liner notes give no clue. The short three movement work is not as profound as one might expect, though there is certainly a mood of wistfulness about it in places. Or perhaps it is really nostalgia: a composer at the end of his eventful life looking back not just into the recent past, but beyond - there are definite nods to his musical heroes, Mozart and J.S. Bach in the structure, conciseness, clarity and ambiguous jollity of the work.
That concision and quality were previewed in the Five Pieces for wind and percussion op.83, which certainly has been recorded before, in 1995 by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie on Virgin Classics (VC 5450562). The work consists of three short movements, less than two minutes each, followed by two longer ones. Curiously, the instrumentation is additive: the work opens with only a flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, but by the third movement the two French horns have appeared, and in the fourth the two percussionists finally join in, after a brief appearance of the military side-drum in the second. Clearly, Toch is interested more by the interplay of timbres in what is really a suite of pieces linked by instrumentation than a compellingly coherent work. But this is thoughtful and generally approachable music that sounds, in a good way, quite a bit like Hindemith, a very close contemporary of Toch's. Most of Hindemith's wind music comes from an earlier period, but his well-known Symphony in B flat - for woodwinds, brass and percussion - presumably inspired Toch's own experiments in the genre. In the Chinese Flute and Five Pieces, percussion plays an important role - what a pity that CPO could not be bothered to list the individual instruments, rather than labelling each simply as "Schlagzeug".
Apart from the small points already mentioned, sound and general production quality is good overall. The booklet is informative, with notes on the works by Gerhard Müller-Hornbach, and full song texts in their original German and English. One minor irritation is that the quality of the translation into English is patchy - CPO joins a long list of European labels who have saved a few euros by not using a native speaker but compromised the quality of their finished product in the process. In fairness, most of the time the translations are wholly adequate, but the lapses can be silly: the Mutare Ensemble, who perform very professionally on this disc, will probably not take kindly to being referred to as "an extraordinarily variable and versatile ensemble" and the mistranslation of "zeitweise" ('at times') yields "its intensive occupation with experimental forms of music theater during set time slots"!
Collected reviews and contact at reviews.gramma.co.uk
Subtle, sometimes mesmerising, quasi-oriental music.