Ernst Toch

0 of 5 stars

The Seven Symphonies

Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra
Alun Francis

Recorded in 1995, 1999, 2001 and 2002 in Jesus-Christus-Kirche, Berlin

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: August 2006
CD No: CPO 777 191-2
(3 CDs)
Duration: 3 hours 16 minutes

If, like me, you’ve come across Vienna-born Ernst Toch (1887-1964) – if at all – only as the composer of the delightfully witty “Geographical Fugue”, for speaking chorus, then brace yourself for some very interesting discoveries.

Toch’s story is typical of mid-European Jewish musicians of his generation – early success in Austria and Germany, escape from Hitler’s regime in the 1930s, brief periods in Paris and London, after which he settled in the USA. He worked in Hollywood for a time (his film scores include the 1939 Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard comedy-thriller “The Cat and the Canary”, and he was twice nominated for an Oscar), and he taught for some years at the University of Southern California.

His seven symphonies all date from the last fourteen years of his life, part of an attempt to re-connect with his European roots. This 3-CD set re-packages recordings made between 1995 and 2002, originally issued separately (the booklets are supplied in their original separate state instead of being re-bound in a single volume).

Symphony No.1 was written during a return visit to Vienna in 1950. It begins in mysterious quiet (the string glissandos remind of, and anticipate, the opening of Britten’s opera “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”), but the first movement’s central fugal section reveals the music’s steely core. The scherzo moves, at first, between a neo-classical wiriness and an almost impressionistic concern with texture and tone-colour as important elements in their own right, culminating in a percussion-led climax of remarkable power and energy. The third movement works through some powerful expressive tensions, while Toch’s skilful control of long-range symphonic argument in the finale makes the eventual E flat major resolution seem both surprising and inevitable.

Symphonies 2 and 3 are coupled on the second disc. No. 2, from 1951, opens with a darkly dramatic movement with the unusual marking, Allegro fanatico, embracing both explosive anger (as at the start) and tense stillness. The light and airy scherzo ends abruptly leaving the way clear for the plangent woodwind colours at the start of the slow movement. The finale attempts to resolve the earlier tensions, though the concluding timpani gesture appears to leave a question over how well it has succeeded.

The three-movement Third Symphony won a Pulitzer Prize in 1957. The opening bassoon solo is characteristic of Toch’s ability to approach each new symphony from a fresh angle. His continuing exploration of new sonorities is remarkable, too, with parts for a Hammond organ and a series of glass balls (not to mention some even more freaky instruments that he eventually removed). The cheerfully sinister trumpet theme that emerges in the opening movement, and the music’s subsequent collapse, is a hair-raising passage, brilliantly realised here. The middle one is both slow movement and scherzo, consolatory and astringently whimsical by turns. The finale reveals Toch’s deft way with a fugue.

Symphony No.4 (1957), coupled here with No.1, is in three movements, two substantial outer ones, which embrace both mediation and drama, enclosing a short, buoyant but tight-lipped scherzo. Toch wrote it as homage to Marian MacDowell, widow of the composer Edward MacDowell, who established the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire in his memory, to provide musicians, writers and artists with a secluded environment in which to work. Toch was invited there three times. Sadly, she died before the symphony was complete. Its most controversial feature is the spoken tribute to her inserted between the movements – too controversial for the conductor of the premiere, Antal Dorati, who refused to include them. Here the conductor of these recorded performances, Alun Francis, speaks them, and in not too rhetorical a tone. The sentiments are no doubt Toch’s own, though whether or not he actually wrote the words the booklet notes do make clear. It all sounds a bit portentous, I have to say, and in spite of Toch’s wishes, the music would stand up perfectly well without them.

The last three symphonies, collected on the final CD, were written in quick succession in the last two years of Toch’s life, and they continue the trend towards greater concision (each of the last six symphonies is shorter than the one before).

No. 5, in two movements, is the outcome of music originally intended for an opera. Although subtitled ‘Rhapsodic poem’, there is a real sense of cohesion, in spite of the abrupt changes of mood – tense and angry one moment, gently intimate the next. The haunted quiet ending is emotionally equivocal.

The Sixth Symphony opens in the same kind of ambiguously playful mood as, say, Nielsen’s Sixth. The simpler the music gets, the more mysterious it becomes. When Toch resorts to unclouded major tonality, as in the solo string passages in the final movement, there’s never any suggestion of ironic distancing, as there is, say, in later composers like Schnittke, but the sense that it is all germane to the music’s over-arching argument. And always there’s Toch capacity for making the most unexpected changes of direction – the most abrupt dislocations of texture and tone colour – sound not only convincing but also right.

Like No.6, the Seventh is in three movements. The opening is tranquillity itself, with pastoral-sounding woodwind solos. But more disruptive forces are soon at work – not violently, but enough to keep you guessing as to where the music will go next. The central scherzo is an argumentative piece (“cussed”, Robert Simpson would have called it) which turns warmly lyrical, then tiptoes sardonically off-stage at the end.

Toch’s music has a striking capacity for innovation against a traditional background. Basically tonal, both his melodic and harmonic language can nevertheless veer off into tense, highly chromatic writing of a particularly expressive kind; somehow it emerges as all of a piece. His approach to form may be unconventional, but his structures are always cogently argued – big climaxes, however eruptive, are always carefully prepared.

Alongside a feel for long-breathed melodic spans, Toch is particularly fond of extended unaccompanied cantilenas (the solo flute at the start of the third movement of No.1, or the high-lying violin line that opens No.4 are good examples) and also had an acute ear for intricately detailed textures which, in the earlier symphonies, sometimes almost anticipate Ligeti. Toch’s soundworld also has something of Hindemith and, as already suggested, Nielsen.

However positive his music’s outlook, it is never content with the simplistically facile. For example, an unexpected stroke of scoring – the bell sounds at the end of the 6th Symphony, say – will often add a wholly new resonance to the music just when you thought you had the measure of where it was going.

The Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra plays with evident commitment though not always with that final degree of polish. Alun Francis shapes the performances with awareness of both the music’s passing quirks and its overall sense of direction.Strongly recommended to anyone who wants to explore the byways of mid-twentieth-century Western music, and is prepared for the possibility that they may not be as marginal as they first appear.

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