* Tanz-Suite for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, and
percussion, op. 30
* Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, op. 35
Christian Poltera (cello); Spectrum Concerts Berlin/Thomas Carroll.
Naxos 8.559282 Total time: 57:35
Summary for the Busy Executive: Outstanding.
The music of Ernst Toch falls into two large groups: works up to about
1935 and those after 1945. Having fled from Berlin to the United States
in 1933, Toch suffered from depression and a creative block for about
ten years because of worries for his family in Europe (those relatives
who couldn't get out were killed by the Fascists) and because of the war
generally. These two pieces come from the early Twenties.
Toch used to joke, "In the U. S., I am a dachshund, but in Europe,
I was a St. Bernard." Toch's European career was indeed rather large.
His works appeared in just about every important new-music festival.
Publishers fought over him. Critics had to take him into account.
He even sold well. Both of these works show you why.
The Dance Suite, in six movements, mixes miniatures with longer movements,
the last quite substantial. The score plays into several trends of the
Twenties: the New Classicism or New Objectivity, the emphasis on percussion
begun by Stravinsky and culminating in Varese's Ionization, stripped-down
orchestration and forms begun by Stravinsky just after the War, and the
concern for independence of parts through counterpoint and instrumental
contrast. If the archetype of the Romantic orchestra was the organ and
a blending of colors, the goal of the Modern orchestra was the piano
(sans pedal) and distinct, primary colors. An oboe should sound like
an oboe, rather than inhabiting a gray area with a trumpet. At least,
that's what it seemed like in the Twenties.
The work sounds "bigger" than it looks on paper. The small forces,
in many ways dictated by straitened economies, often through judicious
specification of instruments and the complexity of thought that goes
into them take on symphonic character. One thinks of Hindemith's Suite
from Der Damon or Milhaud's Petites Symphonies. Even Schoenberg's
Kammersymphonie seems to lurk in the background. Although not written
in standard symphonic forms, Toch's Dance Suite shows the hand of a
string quartet writer and future symphonist. The architecture runs
extremely taut and the ideas lean and memorable. The music and the
shapes resemble nobody other than Toch, who occasionally lets loose an
extremely bizarre streak. For me, this comes out most clearly in the
finale, "Massige Viertel -- Tanz des Erwachens" (even quarter notes --
dance of the awakened), more than twice as long as any other movement.
It teeters between a streamlined update of Wagner's "Forest Murmurs" and
Siegfried-Idyl and an Expressionist waltz. The unstated program seems
to be dawn, sunrise, and a morning dance. The contrast of straightforward
(and beautifully-done) Romanticism with an acerbic Modernism provides
the surprise and the mystery of the movement.
The Cello Concerto (1924-25) continues most of these tendencies,
particularly the clarity of parts and the staking out of the twilight
land between chamber and symphonic music. Toch calls for a soloist and
twelve players, bringing to mind such modern masterpieces as the Hindemith
Kammermusiken (1922-27), the Berg Chamber Concerto (1923-25), Weill's
violin concerto (1924), Falla's harpsichord concerto (1923-26), and
Poulenc's Aubade (1929). Again, the elephant in the room is Schoenberg's
first Kammersymphonie, a work of enormous influence even on composers
with styles quite different from Schoenberg. We can see from this list
that Toch is right in the thick of important musical currents and, to
some extent, influencing them.
Toch's concerto consists of four movements: an allegro, a scherzo,
an adagio, and a rondo-like finale, with the two longest movements
the first and third. The first movement is by far the most complex,
both in thematic material and in presentation. Indeed, it comes fairly
close to the Berg Chamber Concerto in its texture. The cello is clearly
the primary voice, but almost everybody else gets their moment as well.
The movement comes across a bit like a cocktail party, to tell you the
truth -- a swirl of highly-chromatic themes coming in and out of notice.
Halfway through, the cello gets a marvelous cadenza, with fiendishly
difficult chords and counterpoint. Unlike many cadenzas, this one sticks
together and holds interest. The movement as a whole took a lot of
listening before it came into focus. The scherzo, on the other hand,
strikes me as almost brutally direct, especially compared to what went
on before. The opening pulses with almost manic energy, while the trio,
inaugurated by the horn, sings lyrically and beautifully. The slow
movement wouldn't find itself out of place in a string quartet -- different
orchestration, of course -- with a deep, soulful core, highly Romantic
in spirit. The chattering, very Hindemithian finale features a theme
that seems an ancestor of Shostakovich's D-S-C-H (featured in that
composer's second cello concerto, among other places). Maybe that shape
particularly suits the cello.
For years, Toch fans have had to put up with inferior, often premiere
performances. The LP recordings of the cello concerto I grew up with
were almost unlistenable. Things have changed for the better. This is
one exceptional disc. Poltera smoothes out the bumps and knots of the
cello concerto, but the entire Berlin ensemble matches him in musicianship,
phrasing, and tone. Conductor Thomas Carroll has obviously put in a
great deal of time with both scores. This is one crisp, handsome account.
There are two other CD recordings of the concerto that I know of. The
first by cellist Steven Honigberg on Albany isn't bad, but it's not as
good as this. The second, on CPO, I haven't heard. It would surprise
me very much if it bettered the Naxos, although I'm always open to
surprise. Great music, a great performance, and a relatively inexpensive
Note: For some reason, these scores, written by the Viennese Toch in
Mannheim, Germany, are part of Naxos's American Classics series. Why,
I have no idea.
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