TOCH: Cantata of the Bitter Herbs. Jephta, Rhapsodic Poem (Symphony No. 5).
Theodore Bikel, narrator; Carol Meyer, soprano; Elizabeth Shammash, mezzo; Richard Clement, tenor; Ted Christopher, baritone; Prague Philharmonic Choir; Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz, cond.
Naxos 8.559417 (B) (DDD) TT: 65:17

Ernst Toch, a leading light of Austro-German Modernism, fled Europe in the Thirties, eventually settling in Los Angeles. European critics had mentioned Toch in the same breath as Hindemith, Schoenberg, Berg, Krenek, and Weill. Now he came up against American massive indifference to serious art in general. He made ends meet by teaching and through occasional film work for Hollywood. Creatively, however, events had depressed him to the point that his output slowed almost to a stop. However, every so often a project would come along -- Cantata of the Bitter Herbs, one of these.

The title refers to the Jewish holiday of Passover. Toch, from a fairly assimilated Austrian Jewish family, wasn't particularly observant, like most Jews of his time and class. The Nazis changed that, as they had for Schoenberg, Weill, and others. All these men felt compelled to think of themselves as Jews, probably for the first time since childhood. Toch had become friendly with a rabbi in Los Angeles, a cultured, cosmopolitan German Jew who had emigrated before Hitler had come to power. The Passover story, the flight of the Israelites from Egypt and their forty-year wandering in the desert, appealed to several of the liberal or Jewish exiles from Axis countries. Kurt Weill refers to it in several works of the Thirties. Paul Dessau writes a major score, Haggadah Shel Pesach.

At any rate, Toch had a commission for a major work and set about fulfilling it. For me, and probably for those familiar with something like the knotty cello concerto, the music comes as a shock. Toch comes up with an idiom practically Elgarian. The choral writing hovers around the earliest part of the Twentieth Century. It may honorably fulfill the commission, but I can't shake the feeling that it's not Toch at his most genuine. For one thing, I miss the psychological penetration and dramatic complexity not only of Elgar, but of Toch himself. There's nothing wrong with the piece. It even contains some beautiful passages. But it doesn't make itself feel "necessary." Knowing what Toch can do elsewhere reveals an essential emptiness in the cantata, a work marking time.

No such reservations about Jephta, however. The work began as an opera on the Biblical story -- a pre-Judaic narrative similar to Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia. Jephta, in the eyes of most Jewish scholars the least of the judges of Israel, promises that if God gives him victory over his enemies, he will sacrifice the first person who walks out of his house to greet him. It turns out that his only daughter is the first. This story has given most scholars fits because Jewish law prohibits human sacrifice (the lesson of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, among other things). At any rate, the librettist moved more slowly than Toch could bear, and Toch chucked over the opera project to work on a purely orchestral composition inspired by the story. The final product inhabits an unusual space in the interstices of tone poem, ballet, and symphony. One clearly hears the dramatic outlines of the story, characterizations of the major personae, and a literary meta-narrative, but one also feels the cohesion of a symphonic movement (the piece has only one formal movement). Toch himself had few reservations about calling it a symphony, and you can take his point. However, its structural outlines bear little resemblance to most other symphonies. The Strauss Sinfonia Domestica comes close, but even there one sees analogies to classical procedures. All that said, Jephta evokes the tragic power of the story, without the aggressive dissonance of Toch's Expressionist period and without the sentimentally nostalgic reminiscence of the Cantata.

Schwarz does better with the harder symphony than with the softer choral work. The Czech chorus is quite good, with diction so sharp, you hear the oddities of English pronounced by non-native speakers. The orchestra gives the music a nice warm sonic bath. However, Schwarz and the Seattle clear away the fog, with an incisive performance of Jephta. Indeed, this surpasses the reliable standby of Robert Whitney and the Louisville.

S.G.S. (May 2005)