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Friday, May 23, 2014

Ernst Toch, Violin Sonata No. 1, Cello Sonata, and Other Chamber Works

There are many reasons for the eclipse and sometimes later revival of 20th century composers. Part of it has to do with the dominant style of any given period. In any case it is heartening to discover previously neglected artists now, if their music turns out to have a good deal of merit.

In the case of Ernst Toch (1887-1964), his music was absent from consideration when I first started exploring the modern period. Some many years ago I came across a very OOP used LP of a Toch song cycle that M-G-M Records had recorded in the '50s. I was impressed with it but that was all I could find then (this was the late '80s).

Only now are we seeing a resurgence of performances and recordings, thanks in part to the Spectrum Concerts Berlin, who are responsible for performing the music on the CD up for review today. It is a collection of chamber works, including the Violin Sonata No. 1, Cello Sonata (Naxos 8.559716), and others.

Toch was one of the exiles of the Nazi years, one of the many forced to flee for his life. He taught for several years at New York's New School beginning in 1934, then the University of Southern California. Unlike Schoenberg or Hindemith, his exile did not bring with it much notoriety. In fact he eclipsed into relative obscurity and pretty much remained there for the rest of his life. Surely it had nothing to do with the quality of his music.

That we can hear for ourselves in this five-work anthology of chamber music that covers a period between 1913 and 1950. The "Violin Sonata No. 1" (1913) has in part a 19th-century feel to it but as all the works heard here it is exceptionally well-crafted. We get more of the modernist Toch in the works that follow. The "Divertimento" Op. 37, No. 1 (1925) finds him rather fully into his own style, which may remind of early Hindemith with perhaps a touch of pre-12-tone Schoenberg and Berg, but as with all these works stands on its own.

The "Cello Sonata", Op. 50 (1929) and the "String Trio", Op. 63 (1936) find him fully bloomed, abstracted yet engaging, a force for the 20th-century sensibility of his time. The three-odd minute "Adagio elegiaco" (1950) is a heart-felt lament for the victims of the holocaust. The fact that his music fit in with no set school of composers means he in some ways fought the battle for acceptance alone. Nowadays those schools are not nearly as important to us as they were, so that we can hear his music afresh and see the good in it all.

Spectrum Concerts Berlin give us nearly an hour of very well-played Toch. There are two other releases in the series which I certainly want to hear, but in the meantime we get some masterful examples of a composer that well deserves recognition.

Anyone with a penchant for early modernists will revel in this release. Highly recommended.

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