TOCH: String Quartet No. 6 op. 12. String Quartet No. 12 op. 70.
Verdi Quartet.
cpo 999 776 (F) {DDD} TT: 65:40

Ernst Toch, with more than a little self-dramatization, called himself "the lost German composer" of the Twentieth Century. Actually, he was one of many. After all, how many know the work of David, Distler, Pepping, or Krenek, to name just a few? Weill hangs on mainly by his Broadway work rather than by his considerable achievement in the concert hall and on the opera stage. Hindemith's huge output has dwindled to less than half a dozen pieces, as far as the general public is concerned. Berg lives mainly by his violin concerto and Wozzeck, Schoenberg by his Verklärte Nacht and Gurrelieder. Webern, undoubtedly the most influential German composer after the war, remains a recherché taste. If we consider live performances as an important indicator of a composer's reputation, then most Twentieth-Century front-rank German composers are lost. Indeed, Mahler and Richard Strauss seem the only two with a really firm grip.

Toch was, as they say, a natural. Despite strong parental opposition, he turned himself into a composer by a remarkable series of self-imposed exercises. Among other things, he taught himself to read music and did manage to get his parents to spring for piano lessons. But they were still set on him to study medicine or law. One day, while window shopping, he saw a pocket study score of a Mozart string quartet and bought it. He was overwhelmed. To get to know it better, he copied it out in secret, working at night so his parents wouldn't find out. The compact size of the study score made it easier to hide (some boys hide Playboy; Toch hid Mozart). He also noticed that the publication was part of a series of "Ten Famous String Quartets by Mozart," and he bought another. He began to copy it out but decided as an experiment to take only the first eight bars and then to supply eight more bars of his own. He compared his "solution" to Mozart's and, in his own words, he was "crushed." Mozart's eight were way beyond his. However, Toch decided to stick to it, always referring his results to Mozart's and taking the "correction," learning from the differences. The regimen succeeded. Toch suddenly won a prestigious prize for young composers (he had submitted his entry without his parents' knowledge). Part of the award was formal study. Toch arrived at his teacher's office, excited at the prospect of his first "real" lesson, only for the professor to tell him, "I was hoping, if you didn't mind, to study with you." To the end of his life, Toch took an unorthodox approach to composition. You can get glimpses of it in his book The Shaping Forces of Music, one of the most valuable texts for composers I've yet come across. Most composition texts tell you technique. Toch teaches musical rhetoric.

Musically, Toch came of age in the Teens and Twenties, part of that heady Austro-German mix of Schoenberg, Reger, and Mahler. Richard Strauss never seemed to exercise all that much sway over him, as he did, say, over Schrecker and Korngold. That revelatory first encounter with Mozart probably immunized him as well as gave him a love for writing string quartets. From his earliest known works (his first pieces were lost in the chaos of the Holocaust and the modern Jewish diaspora), he exhibits a "rage for form" and clarity of idea.

We see this in the sixth quartet, the earliest surviving quartet and written at age 18. The composer was still in high school. It shows Toch's mastery of the Brahms idiom. It takes not only musical talent but also musical brains to do Brahms. The string writing is expert, even at this early stage, the textures inventive and surprising without descending into the bizarre, and the young composer's grasp of his musical argument (over, incidentally, over a very long span—four movements take thirty-seven minutes) firm and confident. This score would have done most composers of any age proud. However, you do see the adolescent in the slow third movement—not technically, but emotionally. Marked "Andante doloroso," it lacks a certain weight of experience, as if the composer doesn't really know what sadness is, and it consequently falls back on certain chromatic tropes of sadness, in lieu of the real thing. That demur aside, the quartet impresses on many fronts. For example, the second movement, "Andantino amabile," successfully sandwiches a "gypsy" scherzo between a Brahmsian intermezzo. The scherzo seems to move twice as fast as the intermezzo, but because it's twice as fast, the basic underlying pulse remains unchanged. A wonderful rhythmic ambiguity hovers over the movement, its power due in no small measure to its simplicity. Equally noteworthy is Toch's very early realization that all four instruments don't have to play all the time. But then, young though he might be, this is his sixth quartet. He has the experience of five others behind him.

Chamber music in general and the string quartet in particular run through Toch's output like a spine. They have the same central importance to his other work as Bartók's and Shostakovich's quartet cycles do to their catalogues. Nevertheless, it took Toch nearly twenty years to compose the String Quartet No. 12. Indeed, Toch suffered from a long-term creative block, arising from his depression, frustration, and guilt over his survival during the Holocaust and his failure to get relatives and friends away from the Third Reich. Apparently, this string quartet broke his creative silence, and significantly it appeared in 1946.

Forty years and six quartets later, Toch has moved from astonishing talent to great composer. The technical assurance of 1905 has become strong enough to lead the composer to take considerable risks. Much of this quartet—the first movement especially—runs to two, occasionally three, parts. At certain points, it strikes the ear as a series of duos. It's leaner and meaner than the earlier work and, as Job says, "full of trouble."

The first movement begins with a highly chromatic line in quick notes, functioning, for the most part, as accompaniment and rhythmic motor carrying the music on. It becomes apparent, however, that this chromatic line has great thematic importance throughout the movement, even to the point of taking center stage. One can't call it an accompaniment any longer. Indeed, much of the quartet takes up with this kind of scurrying figure, often in secondary lines beneath snatches of broader melodies. The prevailing image to me is subsurface rot or termites burrowing under a parquet floor. It imparts a pall over the entire work. In the slow second movement, the writing becomes bleaker and thicker, with odd passages of noble, even radiant chorale breaking in once in a blue moon, kind of like a hope against hope. The third movement ("Pensive Serenade") takes off from the Brahmsian intermezzo. The main theme, considered all by itself, sings graciously—"Viennese-y," in the words of Ira Gershwin. The supporting harmonies, again in scurrying short notes, are rather queasy, off-balance, and the suave serenade gives way to an acerbic march for the second main idea. The serenade returns without reaching psychic resolution. Toch saves the best for last. The finale begins as an aggressive march, of which the previous movement's march was a mere shadow. I can't say exactly how, but the emotional stakes seem raised, as we seem to revisit old psychic neighborhoods with greater depth. Forty years older, Toch knows what sorrow is, and he also knows that he can't wallow in it. What we get is an heroic perseverance in the face of trouble, without settling for easy, pre-fab transcendence.

Because I like to know what's under the hood, I'll point out certain felicities of composition. Aside from the virtuosic textural variety, Toch's handling of rhythm impressed me no end. The liner notes indicate that Toch uses odd meters like 11/8, 5/8, 18/16, and so on. Yet one never feels the short unit. Everything proceeds in long, logical phrases. Indeed, if the liner notes hadn't told me, I doubt I would have cottoned to the metrical games. Also, the ends of the movements offer poetic surprises, without stepping into the shock of the arbitrary. I don't give away surprises if I can help it. You'll have to listen for yourself.

The Verdi Quartet is outstanding. Intonation, balance, artistry over the single line, beauty of tone, architectural smarts, emotional maturity—they have it all. I've never heard these pieces played any better. In fact, I've never heard a better performance of any Toch work. They've also recorded Toch's eighth and ninth quartets on cpo 999686. I've already ordered my copy.

One of cpo's best.

S.G.S. (August 2003)