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CD Review

Ernst Toch

Chamber Music

  • Violin Sonata #2, Op. 44 (1928) *
  • Burlesken for Piano, Op. 31 (1923)
  • 3 Impromptus for Cello, Op. 90c (1963)
  • Quintet for Piano, 2 Violins, Viola & Cello, Op. 64 (1938)
* Annette von Hehn, violin
Daniel Blumenthal, piano
Julia-Maria Kretz, violin
Hartmut Rohde, viola
Frank Dodge, cello
Naxos 8.559324 68:57

Summary for the Busy Executive: Fine music, pretty good performances.

From the end of World War I to the end of the Weimar Republic, the Viennese composer Ernst Toch enjoyed the same level of importance granted to Hindemith, Weill, and Schoenberg – in the first rank of German Modernism. Like all three of the above, Toch also fled the Nazis for the United States. He settled on the West Coast, where he found movie work, writing stock music, orchestrating others' scores, contributing original music (often uncredited). However, he did pick up three Oscar nominations along the way. For perhaps his best-known film, Heidi, he received no on-screen credit at all. Most importantly, the music that mattered to him had no outlet. That situation and his increasing worry over his relatives still in Europe (half of them were killed) led to a creative block that lasted even after the war. Recovery from a heart attack in 1948 got him going again, spurring him to an impressive output, including seven symphonies, the third of which got the Pulitzer. He also began teaching at the University of Southern California, where his pupils included many film composers. Nevertheless, in the States, a country that benignly neglects concert music, especially Modern music, he never regained the eminence he had won in Europe decades before.

I first knew of Toch when my high-school choir sweat bullets to learn his 1930 avant-garde "Geographical Fugue" – a real fugue, spoken rather than sung, in which rhythmic phrases of place names replaced musical themes ("The Popocatepetl is not in Canada, rather in Mexico, Mexico, Mexico"). From then on, I became a Toch fan. Fifty years ago, I could find only his chamber music, which gripped me. In college, I picked up his remarkable book The Shaping Forces of Music, intended as a guide for beginning composers. Given the fact that Toch taught himself composition rather than learned it from the traditional curriculum, it should not surprise us that it focuses not on the usual counterpoint or harmony. It assumes the reader already knows these things. Instead, he breaks down the rhetoric of music, always backing up his analysis with examples from good and even great composers. How do you start a piece? How do you make a coherent melody? How do you handle form? As the title implies, composition is not a matter of "filling" pre-existent shapes, but of dynamically generating shapes. The blank page becomes an invitation for your mind to dig and explore.

The CD presents Toch's work from the Twenties through the Sixties (Toch died in 1964). After an early Brahmsian phase, Toch plunged into the experimentalism of the Twenties, producing works along different lines. The Violin Sonata #2 combines expressionism in its melodic expression with the "new objectivity" in its architecture. A good deal of the melodic material seems a bit generic – you get the feeling that many composers of the period could have come up with it. However, the way Toch directs his "shaping forces" result in idiosyncratic and thoroughly convincing rhetorical architecture. The first movement begins as a sonata of determined mood and falls apart, both structurally and emotionally. The second movement ("dancelike, gracefully"), a serene scherzo, is the weakest and most clichéd in its melodic shapes, although occasionally you do encounter some neat rhythmic shifts. The "allegro giusto" finale uses what I think is the main theme of the previous movement – again, not much in itself – in a terrific fugue. Toch here spins straw into gold.

The 3 Burlesken appear five years earlier and show, I think, a more exploratory turn of mind than the sonata. Toch labels the movements "Gemächlich" (moderato), "Lebhaft" (lively), and "Der Jongleur" (the juggler). All are in A-B-A forms. In the first two, fast music encloses lyrical middles. The fast parts recall the idiom of Stravinsky's 5 Easy Pieces, although the piano writing is anything but easy, while the slow parts resemble Hindemith. "Der Jongleur" goes against this pattern in that all the music is fast and even more virtuosic, a capricious toccata. It enjoyed a brief spell of popularity as an encore piece in piano recitals.

Writing for a solo melody instrument has always struck me as a supreme test of a composer, since one has no recourse to great variety of color or an exciting harmonic progression. The melody must establish tonality (in tonal music) and remain interesting and coherent. Toch originally conceived the 3 Impromptus for his fellow Angelino, the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. The first sings beautifully. The second has roots in the country dances of Central Europe. The third, the longest, lays out a complex argument, in which one doesn't hear themes, but theme-heads, from which the musical argument exfoliates. To some extent, these miniatures are Toch flexing his composing muscles or doodling, except that they're not aimless and are very lovely.

I consider Toch's Piano Quintet not only one of his best, but one of the Twentieth Century's. Toch stuffs it with strong invention and exciting counterpoint. I knew it first in a Sixties LP recording with the American Arts Quartet and André Previn, who studied with Toch, at the piano. The work has four movements: "The Lyrical Part," "The Whimsical Part," "The Contemplative Part," "The Dramatic Part." The first movement rolls out like a troubled river, with marvelous, memorable themes, and a sense of inevitability. Its main theme invites the listener to explore. You really want to know what turn the music will take. "Whimsical" – a scherzo and trio – strikes me as misnamed. This isn't cute whimsy, but a racketing around from one idea to the next in the scherzo and a tender lyricism in the trio. Incidentally, the main theme of the trio is a variant of the main theme of the scherzo. On the other hand, "Contemplative," a slow and richly polyphonic movement, lives up to its name. Within its quiet boundaries, a great variety of subtle textures allow you to feel as if you have come through a long, profound journey. The gigue-like "Dramatic Part" again returns us to the dazzling wealth of ideas of the first movement but never sounds scattered. Toch occasionally lightens the mood with bright, subsidiary ideas, that nevertheless take off from the main matter. The piece winds itself up as it continues until it breaks into the texture and tempo of "The Lyrical Part," with a theme that sings of arrival. I know of few other chamber pieces so satisfying in its entire design as this one.

The performers all do well. Daniel Blumenthal, a virtuoso pianist who deserves a much bigger career than what he's got, is the driving engine of most of the works here. The string players are superb chamber partners (as is Blumenthal). Frank Dodge on cello stands out, not so much for his tone, but for his large musical intelligence, not only in the Impromptus, but in the Quintet as well. Of course, there Toch gives the cello and the piano the best opportunities to shine. Blumenthal and Dodge make the most of them. Highly recommended, especially if you feel inclined to take a chance on Toch.

Copyright © 2012, Steve Schwartz