TOCH:  Tanz-Suite, Op. 30.  Concerto for Cello and Chamber Orchestra, Op. 35.
Susanne Müller-Hornbach, cello; Mutare Ensemble/Gerhard Müller-Hornbach, cond.
cpo 999 688 (F) (DDD) TT:  56:32

Ernst Toch (1887-1964) bitterly described himself as "the most forgotten composer of the 20th century" to his friend Nicolas Slonimsky shortly before he died.  Born in Vienna he was a closet autodidact while, at his family's insistence, he studied medicine and philosophy. The string quartets of Mozart were his model, and indeed he himself would compose 13. In 1909 he undertook formal musical training, and three years later began teaching at Mannheim, and eventually in Berlin for four years before the Nazis came to power. Like his younger contemporary Kurt Weill, Toch fled in 1933 to Paris, then London, and in 1935 to the U.S. Whereas Weill remained in New York City and became a celebrated composer of musical plays, Toch followed Schoenberg and Otto Klemperer west to Los Angeles, where he taught at USC. In his spare time he wrote several film scores starting with Peter Ibbetson in 1935, which earned him the first of two Academy Award nominations (the other was Address Unknown in 1943). In England he had already scored two films for Alexander Korda: Catherine the Great (starring Elisabeth Bergner) and The Private Life of Don Juan (an aging Douglas Fairbanks). But Toch's American films after Ibbetson were "programmers," written for money to send to his relatives in Germany. A heart attack in 1948 rekindled his creativity (he wrote only eight works between 1933 and 1946, although the Pinocchio Overture of 1936, for Klemperer and the Los Angeles Phil, remains the most popular work in his canon). Toch began writing symphonies at age 60, completed seven in the postwar period, and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his Third in 1956.

He lacked, however, the distinctions of Schoenberg, Hindemith and Stravinsky (not to mention Weill, who predeceased him by 14 years; indeed, only Stravinsky lived longer). cpo has done much in the last few years to resurrect Toch's reputation, and now adds this coupling of prewar-2 works, written in tandem years: the Dance Suite in 1923 for a dance class at Mannheim, and the Cello Concerto in 1924 for a competition sponsored by the publishing company, B. Schott u. S–hne. Toch was the fifth of five prize winners, who included Paul Dessau, Alexandre Tcherepnin and Aare Merikanto. Emanuel Feuermann introduced the concerto at Kiel in 1925. Despite kudos from such tastemakers as Alfred Einstein and Heinrich Strobel, the work fell into disuse. Listening eight decades later one knows why: its four movements (with an Adagio that follows a scherzo) sounds like a martini Hindemith might have made with Kool-Aid rather than gin. It has no kick - leaves no memory despite the admirable championing of Susanne Müller-Hornbach, who teaches at the Wuppertal campus of the Cologne Musikakademie. The Mutare Ensemble is made up of professionals who rehearse and plan performances at Frankfurt-am-Main, where their conductor teaches. cpo's notes don't tell us if he is the brother, husband (or perhaps father) of Susanne. But they work together seamlessly, and in the Dance Suite for six players, including a percussionist, as well - originally a four-movement work to which Toch added two more post facto. It, too, quits the memory as each movement ends.

Neither piece is unpleasant, but neither possesses much (or should one say enough?) character to sustain a revival. The recording and packaging are as impressive as the performances, although an abstract cover painting in reds, ranging from maroon to near-orange, promises contents more sanguine than one hears on the disk.

R.D. (October 2002)