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CLASSICAL  July 2005

CLASSICAL July 2005

Subject:

Toch - Cantata of the Bitter Herbs

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 25 Jul 2005 07:10:53 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

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      Ernest Toch

*  Cantata of the Bitter Herbs
*  Jephta, Rhapsodic Poem (Symphony No. 5)

Theodore Bikel (narrator), Carol Meyer (soprano), Elizabeth Shammash
(mezzo), Richard Clement (tenor), Ted Christopher (baritone), Prague
Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Seattle Symphony/Gerard
Schwarz
Naxos 8.559417 Total time: 65:17

Ernst Toch, a leading light of Austro-German Modernism, fled Europe in
the Thirties, eventually settling in Los Angeles.  European critics had
mentioned Toch in the same breath as Hindemith, Schoenberg, Berg, Krenek,
and Weill.  Now he came up against American massive indifference to
serious art in general.  He made ends meet by teaching and through
occasional film work for Hollywood.  Creatively, however, events had
depressed him to the point that his output slowed almost to a stop.
However, every so often a project would come along -- Cantata of the
Bitter Herbs, one of these.

The title refers to the Jewish holiday of Passover.  Toch, from a
fairly assimilated Austrian Jewish family, wasn't particularly observant,
like most Jews of his time and class.  The Nazis changed that, as they
had for Schoenberg, Weill, and others.  All these men felt compelled to
think of themselves as Jews, probably for the first time since childhood.
Toch had become friendly with a rabbi in Los Angeles, a cultured,
cosmopolitan German Jew who had emigrated before Hitler had come to
power.  The Passover story, the flight of the Israelites from Egypt and
their forty-year wandering in the desert, appealed to several of the
liberal or Jewish exiles from Axis countries.  Kurt Weill refers to it
in several works of the Thirties.  Paul Dessau writes a major score,
Haggadah Shel Pesach.

At any rate, Toch had a commission for a major work and set about
fulfilling it.  For me, and probably for those familiar with something
like the knotty cello concerto, the music comes as a shock.  Toch comes
up with an idiom practically Elgarian.  The choral writing hovers around
the earliest part of the Twentieth Century.  It may honorably fulfill
the commission, but I can't shake the feeling that it's not Toch at his
most genuine.  For one thing, I miss the psychological penetration and
dramatic complexity not only of Elgar, but of Toch himself.  There's
nothing wrong with the piece.  It even contains some beautiful passages.
But it doesn't make itself feel "necessary." Knowing what Toch can do
elsewhere reveals an essential emptiness in the cantata, a work marking
time.

No such reservations about Jephta, however.  The work began as an opera
on the Biblical story -- a pre-Judaic narrative similar to Agamemnon's
sacrifice of Iphigenia.  Jephta, in the eyes of most Jewish scholars the
least of the judges of Israel, promises that if God gives him victory
over his enemies, he will sacrifice the first person who walks out of
his house to greet him.  It turns out that his only daughter is the
first.  This story has given most scholars fits because Jewish law
prohibits human sacrifice (the lesson of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac,
among other things).  At any rate, the librettist moved more slowly than
Toch could bear, and Toch chucked over the opera project to work on a
purely orchestral composition inspired by the story.  The final product
inhabits an unusual space in the interstices of tone poem, ballet, and
symphony.  One clearly hears the dramatic outlines of the story,
characterizations of the major personae, and a literary meta-narrative,
but one also feels the cohesion of a symphonic movement (the piece has
only one formal movement).  Toch himself had few reservations about
calling it a symphony, and you can take his point.  However, its structural
outlines bear little resemblance to most other symphonies.  The Strauss
Sinfonia Domestica comes close, but even there one sees analogies to
classical procedures.  All that said, Jephta evokes the tragic power of
the story, without the aggressive dissonance of Toch's Expressionist
period and without the sentimentally nostalgic reminiscence of the
Cantata.

Schwarz does better with the harder symphony than with the softer choral
work.  The Czech chorus is quite good, with diction so sharp, you hear
the oddities of English pronounced by non-native speakers.  The orchestra
gives the cantata a nice warm sonic bath.  However, Schwarz and the
Seattle clear away the fog, with an incisive performance of Jephta.
Indeed, this surpasses the reliable standby of Robert Whitney and the
Louisville.

Steve Schwartz

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