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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Solo Piano Pieces
Burlesques, Op. 31 (1923) [8:01]
Three Piano Pieces, Op. 32 (1925) [5:37]
Capriccetti, Op. 36 (1923) [6:22]
Ten Etudes for Beginners, Op. 59 (1931) [7:45]
Ten Intermediate Etudes, Op. 57 (1931) [13:32]
Echoes from a Small Town, Op. 49 (1929) [12:23]
Piano Sonata, Op. 47 (1928) [6:50]
Anna Magdalena Kokits (piano)
rec. 2015/16, 4tune Studios, Vienna, Austria
CAPRICCIO C5293 [61:02]

Austrian composer Ernst Toch’s career was split into two parts by the rise of fascism. During the 1920s, when Toch wrote these piano pieces, he was an important member of the European avant-garde. His music was often experimental, including a well-known Geographical Fugue for spoken choir. After he fled to the United States, Toch labored unhappily in Hollywood, supporting a large number of relatives who remained in Europe. Although he was understandably embittered by this experience, he subsequently enjoyed a second act to his musical career. He wrote a fine series of seven symphonies, still full of engagingly eccentric touches, but also reaching back to the Viennese musical world of his youth, albeit with a modernist twist. Toch was honored by a Pulitzer Prize for the third of these symphonies, which William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony splendidly recorded.

Anna Magdalena Kokits’s recital draws upon Toch’s works from 1923-1931. These are miniatures, with an hour-long program divided into forty-eight tracks. They include a sonata and six suites, with a variety often suggestive and sometimes elusive music. These pieces are quite consciously anti-romantic, in that they are pared down both musically and emotionally. These jewel-like utterances are too short to allow much musical development within movements, so the development happens among them. This world of miniatures is fanciful and sometimes quite direct, a kind of musical counterpart to the art of Paul Klee, where everything is clean and controlled. As such inter-war contemporaries as Hindemith, Schulhoff, or Martinu, Toch appropriates popular dance music, revels in tart harmonies, and rejects the romantic conventions of the musical establishment.

The best-known piece in this program is the Juggler, one of the Op. 31 Burlesques. The pianist imitates a juggler, capturing that not-quite machine-like aspect of keeping tossed balls in the air. It is an irresistible image: will she drop the balls? The tone is detached, not mocking. Kokits tosses high and fast, and this is quite exciting. Toch was a fine pianist, and many of the pieces have this playful show-off quality. Many others, however, are quite restful.

Echoes from a Small Town (“Kleinstadtbilder”) is equally concrete, offering tiny sketches of a young kitten, a market, a hurdy-gurdy, walking to school, a poor child, and so on. It sounds much simpler than the careful construction which underpins these apparently superficial jottings.

In contrast, many of the works do not represent things, but instead summon up vaguely perceived emotions. The Three Piano Pieces, Op. 32 are rather unsettling, somewhat in the manner of some Bartůk pieces. The Op. 36 Capriccetti feature angular rhythms and tart harmonies in a sophisticated display.
 
Many of these pieces have been recorded by Christian Seibert on CPO (review). Kokits chooses generally swifter tempi, and plays with more flash. Both recordings sound good: Seibert is drier and a little beefier, while Kokits is warmer. Seibert’s more deliberate approach works better in the Sonata, but Kokits plays more brilliantly in the Capriccetti. Seibert includes the ten Concert Etudes, op 55, a more substantial and interesting work than the two sets of instructional pieces offered by Kokits.

Richard Kraus

 

 




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