TOCH: Tanz-Suite for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, and percussion, op. 30. Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, op. 35.
Christian Poltéra (cello); Spectrum Concerts Berlin/Thomas Carroll.
Naxos 8.559282 (B) (DDD) TT: 57:35

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 Varèse'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 Dämon 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, "Mässige 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 swirling stewpot of highly-chromatic themes coming in and out of regard. 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. Poltéra 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 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 CD. Winner!

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.

S.G.S. (August 2007)