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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

CD REVIEW

 

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Ernst TOCH (1887-1964)
Miniature Overture (1932) [2:27] *
Peter Pan (A Fairy Tale For Orchestra) Op.76 (1956) [13:00]
Notturno Op.77 (1953) [9:27]
Jephta, Rhapsodic Poem (Symphony No.5) Op.89 (1963) [20:44]
Louisville Orchestra/Robert Whitney
Louisville Orchestra/Jorge Mester *
rec. Louisville. Kentucky, 1969 (Overture), 1960 (Peter Pan), 1954 (Notturno), 1965 (Jephta)
FIRST EDITION FECD 0035 [45:42]


Here we have another welcome Louisville retrieval care of First Edition. Toch is faring increasingly well on CD but these pioneering recordings will nevertheless be welcomed even by those who may have collected, say, the Gerard Schwarz performance of the Fifth Symphony on Naxos 8.558417 or the rival Alun Francis on CPO 999 389-2. Both in fact are better played technically than the Louisville-Whitney but these Whitney-Mester performances retain their place by virtue of their zest and spirit.

If we start with the Fifth, or Jephta, Rhapsodic Poem (Symphony No.5) Op.89 as it’s more properly known, we can affirm the Whitney virtues and yet still note associated deficiencies. The orchestra sounds well staffed but occasionally comes under considerable pressure to which it does succumb. The recording allows no bloom so that the violins can sound starved and rather shrill. Still, the direction is fulsome, committed and still impressive. With the coursing lament being subjected to explosive interjections this is an intensely dramatic utterance. Toch cleaves close to Late-Romanticism and utilises plenty of intriguing and fruitful sonorities handling strings, winds and percussion with equal dexterity and ear for balance and colour. The Louisville’s very distinctive trumpet principal is evident once again – his fat, pungent tone enlivens many a disc made at this time. And Toch’s cultivation of moments of Mahlerian angularity register deeply and toughly. The close is an indication of quite far Toch had by now absorbed Mahlerian models without being annihilated by them – indeed whilst proving how much they enriched his vocabulary.

Peter Pan is subtitled A Fairy Tale For Orchestra. Written in 1956 it bristles with post-Straussian rhetoric but allows gentle figuration for the fairy realm in the central of the three movements. We can hear the orchestra flagging rather in the finale, where they nevertheless still convincingly convey some of the more pawky sonorities whilst simultaneously failing to keep strict orchestral discipline. A better case is made for the work by the North German Radio Symphony under Leon Botstein on New World CD 80609-2 where it’s coupled with the First Piano Concerto, Big Ben and Pinocchio – an excellent disc. Notturno dates from a few years earlier and is a languorous and rather Francophile piece, strong on evanescence without ever courting thinness either of material or sonority. The more expressionist agitation later on, in any case, demonstrates the power of Toch’s palette. The Miniature Overture actually opens the programme. It’s the only pre-War piece, a 1932 opus and is full of punchy self-confidence and brassy rhetoric. The notes err when they suggest this dates from Toch’s Hollywood years – he wasn’t quite there yet.

So, yes, competition has caught up with a couple of these important works and it won’t do to pretend otherwise. Nevertheless these pioneering recordings reek of commitment and energy and are deserving of a warm welcome back to the market after so long an absence.

Jonathan Woolf

and Rob Barnett writes:-

Toch was a Viennese whose musical gifts were to thrive in the same milieu as Klimt, Berg, Rilke, Adorno, Schoernberg and Freud. He served - as did Wittgenstein - in the Austrian army during the Great War. He embraced a measure dissonance but it is a loose embrace admitting of a shifting amicable congress between melody and dissonance. He fled his homeland in 1933 and via a two year stay in London ended up in America. He wrote for Hollywood but had no big breakthroughs and the serious commissions were sparse.

The Miniature Overture is one of those work of the 1930s that has a foot planted firmly in the 1920s. It is scored sparsely and scathingly for wind ensemble. This is caustic music with a vitriolic edge, cheery but sardonic - the equivalent of Grosz's drawings of Berlin nightlife although written in Hollywood.

For the composer of the Pinocchio overture it is no surprise to encounter his tripartite Peter Pan. However the Barrie character has been tacked on as an afterthought. Pan was not in Toch's mind when he wrote the piece on a Koussevitsky commission at the MacDowell Colony. Now we are back to the orchestral milieu. There is a laughing even guffawing and hiccuping allegro giocoso. Then comes a fragmented and wispy Molto tranquillo. To conclude comes a chromium and quicksilver, flighty and restless Allegro vivo with pawky brass commentary for contrast. Toch's caustic and edgy style carries over from the Miniature Overture. Do not expect dreamy impressionism.

The Notturno was also written at the MacDowell Colony. Its mood is linked with the Molto tranquillo of the Peter Pan Fairy Tale. Evanescence and the night are suggested. There is less here of the acidic and more of that elusive and evasive mood between nostalgia and mystery. The orchestration is jewelled and carefully weighted. The long tense lyrical violin lines reminded me of William Alwyn (Lyra Angelica, Symphonies 1, 4 and 5) and of the grander Hindemith (Nobilissima Visione, Sinfonia Serena, Harmonie der Welt and Mathis der Maler).

The Symphony No. 5 is also known as Jephta - Rhapsodic Poem. The recording was made in stereo in 1965 two years after it had been written and the year after Toch's death. It is the most recent recording here. This is a single movement symphony in Toch's serious vein - an extension and supercharging of the atmosphere in Notturno with a more marked dramatic activity. Even so the chamber textures and solos which are so much part of Toch's orchestral apparatus are fully present. The feminine chamber treatment contrasts with the vitriolic-dip of the trumpet and a chuckling figure - something of a Toch DNA strand - related to the allegro giocoso of the Peter Pan piece but which somehow does not suggest laughter.

This is not the first time that Jephta has been issued on CD. It appeared in the late 1980s on one of a small clutch of Albany CDs coupled with works by Roy Harris.

These are all from analogue tapes which have been tended attentively in storage.

The Louisville sound seems to have been honestly captured but it must be said that the strings tend less to honey and more to vinegar. This is somehow fitting for Toch's jaundiced worldview.

Just over forty-five minutes is short commons for a CD but Matt Walters has admirably stuck unwaveringly to his one composer per disc approach. The integrity is unquestionable - it's a feature of these downright honest discs - but it will limit the market to already committed Tochists. So be it. Their ranks are surely growing.

Rob Barnett


 


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