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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Ernst Toch was one of the Jewish exiles in the United States who, unlike such composers as Korngold, found it hard to achieve recognition. This fine coupling of two of his most striking pieces from the early 1920s demonstrates his fluency and imagination. The Cello Concerto in four movements has the solo cello, superbly played by Christian Poltera, well matched against a chamber group, with the soloist often playing without any accompaniment. The idiom in the first movement is less tonal than in the other three movements, demonstrating Toch’s ability to bridge the gaps between the different modernist movements of the period. The works end with a contrapuntal finale very close to the music of Toch’s contemporary Hindemith. The Dance Suite, has six varied movements that are far from lightweight. The performances by a talented Berlin group are exemplary, very well recorded.

Karl Lozier
Positive Feedback Online, April 2008

Toch's Tanz-Suite (Dance Suite) [is] very approachable with appealing touches of modernity is my brief description overall. I shall be listening more to this composition.
Modernity is far more apparent in Toch's Cello Concerto. …The group of talented soloists that make up Spectrum Concerts Berlin, get to really shine here. Almost everyone has a solo part while playing. At other times the talented soloists of this group are heard paired with each other. Featured soloist, cellist Christian Poltera does a fine job here and is clearly heard with the overall fine audio quality. A very fitting conclusion in the last (fourth) movement ends in a rousing finale for this disc!

Catherine Milligan
Stringendo, November 2007

The performance by Spectrum Concerts Berlin is masterful, and displays wonderful energy and brilliance from all players.

Phil Vendy
Fine Music, August 2007

A four-star CD…think of the luminous qualities of a painting by Klee or Feininger; Toch, musically, sits on that wavelength.

As the six-movement Tanz-Suite unfolds, you find yourself listening with growing intrigue. The instruments scout around, romp with each other now and then, often go off on their own, but always sound as though they have come together with the interests of something civilized at heart.

The [Cello] Concerto’s four movements have similar percussive statements; both in terms of instruments and in the way Toch requires them to be played. The movements are more clearly defined than in the Tanz-Suite, with stronger individual voices and louder conversations, but the players retain their air of collective civilization even as they warm to their own considerable complexity, if not virtuosity.

The twelve named members of Spectrum Concerts Berlin really bite into their parts, and it’s hard to imagine Toch being presented in better form. For the entire near-60 minutes, almost equally divided between Tanz-Suite and the Concerto, this music is ever-changing, tightly controlled, constantly exploring new sonorities and textures, never resting for long enough to develop any particular themes.  It is stimulating right to the end, not conventionally melodic, but on the conventionally-acceptable side of modernism. There is more than enough of interest to warrant repeated listening, and nothing that you wouldn’t be happy to hear again.

James H. North
Fanfare, May 2007

…hornist Bernhard Krug plays with the breathtaking freedom and élan of a Dennis Brain, and oboist Nigel Shore is in the same league. A long, deep Adagio is mostly a Bach-like yet romantic solo cello aria, subtly reinforced and echoed by a few instruments. Poltéra plays with silken technique and vast reservoirs of tone. …The Concerto’s every moment is filled with interest, ranging from solemn contemplation to dazzling excitement. This work has everything… © 2007 Fanfare Read complete review

D. Moore
American Record Guide, April 2007

Ernst Toch (1887-1964) was born in Vienna, came to America to escape Hitler, was not as good here, despite winning the Pulitzer prize for his Third Symphony, but ended up writing a substantial number of outstanding works. He started composing early in the century, and his first string quartets are lovely romantic pieces. This lyricism underlies his more dissonant and modernistic works of the 1920s, like these two. Both straddle the line between orchestral and chamber music and were written for a varied chamber group including percussion. The Dance Suite is for violin, viola, double bass, flute, and clarinet, while the Cello Concerto adds the rest of a string quartet and wind quintet.

The two works have been paired up before (CPO 999688, Nov/Dec 2002). CPO's recording is a little richer in sound than this one, giving the works more of an orchestral ambience. This one is excellently played, however, and the close-up miking gives it a totally different feeling. Poltera, the cellist, plays with great confidence and involvement. He has recorded the concerto before (Pan 510132, May/June 2003), and he doubtless knows it intimately. The Pan disc also includes Toch's Cello Sonata and the Divertimento for violin and cello, Op. 37: 1. There is still another recording of the concerto by Steven Honigberg (Albany 421, Mar/Apr 2001), also including the sonata and the Impromptu for Cello Solo. One does not tackle music of this complexity and virtuosity lightly, and all of these recordings have been justly praised by Mark Lehmann and me. This new one deserves no less.

Glyn Pursglove
MusicWeb International, February 2007

Though there has undoubtedly been an upsurge of interest in the music of Ernst Toch over the last fifteen years or so, as evidenced by a number of recordings (see links to reviews below), it cannot really be said that he now occupies any kind of settled place in the modern mainstream. He seems doomed to remain to some extent an outsider, perhaps not inappropriately given the circumstances of his life and career.

Toch was one of the many musicians whose lives were disrupted and distorted by the ascendancy of the Nazis. Escaping actual death at their hands, his career as a composer was robbed of the possibility of organic development.

Born in Vienna, Toch had established himself as a significant composer in Weimar Germany by the 1920s. Compositions such as the Piano Concerto, premiered in 1926 by Walter Gieseking (conducted by Hermann Scherchen), his early quartets and piano sonatas, his opera Die Prinzessin auf der Erbse (1927), all served to raise him to a position of some prominence. His music merited discussion in the context of the work of such figures as Berg, Krenek, Weill and Hindemith. With the rise of Hitler – the significance of which Toch realised sooner than some of his even less fortunate fellows – he took an early opportunity to flee abroad. In April 1933 he was attending a musicological conference in Florence; instead of returning to Germany he made his way to Paris and then to London, where his wife and young daughter joined him; in 1934 the young family moved to America.

It took Toch the composer a very long while to recover from this major fracture and dislocation. He taught (one pupil, indeed, was Andre Previn) and he wrote film scores. Between 1934 and 1950 he wrote relatively little ‘serious’ music. From about 1950 until his death, however, he began to write with real energy and commitment again – producing, amongst other important works, seven symphonies, a further opera and a number of chamber works.

The works on this outstanding disc, however, come from his years in Germany. To say that the music makes one think, at one time or another, of Stravinsky or Weill, of Prokofiev or even Milhaud (the Milhaud of Création du Monde) does not, emphatically not, make him a derivative imitator; such names are invoked, rather, to indicate the kinds of music the unfamiliar listener will hear hinted at and alluded to in these works, and to suggest that it is not absurd to think of these early works in the context of such names – this is fine music, eclectically modernist but altogether accessible.

The six movements of the dance suite are delightfully inventive. The first movement (Roter Wirbeltanz) is intensely energetic, but some, at least, of its intensity carries an edge of threat, as if the composer was already aware of the dangers building up, the political intensities and energies which were later to disturb so much. There’s an edge of menace, too, in the second movement (Tanz des Grauens), especially in some of the pizzicato writing for strings and some biting passages for clarinet. The first Intermezzo (Fliessende Achtel) is less troubled, but fades away before it can really insist on a change of mood, before it can affirm the possibility of any emotional stability or simplicity. Complexity and emotional irony return in the Tanz des Schweigens, with a sense of foreboding, although the possibility of contentment is hinted at too. The fifth movement is another Intermezzo (Lebhaft) is acerbically assertive, a reminder, perhaps of the destructive threats hinted at earlier in the work. The last movement – the longest – carries the title Tanz des Erwachens; it opens in a sense of mystery, and seems to chart a transition from darkness into light, even if a hesitant light. Toch’s musical digestive system seems to have processed materials from both Debussy and Wagner, certainly both are present here, though both are finally subsumed in a conclusion which one might describe as Toch’s reinscription of the Viennese Waltz – and the work ends on a note of optimism (without ever encouraging the listener to forget the threats, the glances at the macabre and the hints of destructive madness which mark some of its earlier movements). A fine, subtle piece, which, while accessible and entertaining, certainly doesn’t give up its secrets easily – I shall certainly want (need) to listen to it many more times.

Cellists ought to be queuing up to play the Concerto. It is a beautiful piece, and it is not hard to understand its early popularity – Emanuel Feuermann, who gave the premiere, is said to have performed it some sixty times in Germany in the late 1920s. It is full of complex – but not confusing – rhythmic twists and turns, but full also of a slightly acerbic lyricism. Written for chamber orchestra – and the resources are brilliantly exploited – the sound textures are always transparent, making it easier to follow Toch’s interesting musical argument. All four movements have pleasures to offer, whether it be the elegant second movement (marked agitato) or the well-made finale and the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. But the outstanding movement is perhaps the Adagio, with some quite gorgeous writing for the cello, richly expressive and beautifully integrated into the ensemble writing as the movement goes on.

The performances here are all that one could ask. They are – of course – technically assured; but far more than that they are both thoughtful and passionate (like Toch’s music), both committed and ironic (ditto). The recorded sound is excellent. The very same programme was recorded by the cellist Susanne Muller-Hornbach and the Mutare Ensemble in 1999 and issued on cpo 999 668-2. I haven’t heard that recording, so I can make no kind of comparison. I find it hard, though, to imagine that it can be significantly better than this new version – even if there is a certain sad irony in the fact that it should be issued in the Naxos American Classics series.

David Hurwitz, November 2006

The two works on this disc date from the early to mid 1920s and very much belong to the "new objectivity" of composers such as Weill and early Hindemith. Indeed, when listening to the Cello Concerto, the latter's Kammermusik series comes readily to mind. The Dance Suite, inventively scored for flute, clarinet, violins, viola, double bass, and percussion, is quite a substantial piece as well, lasting nearly half an hour and featuring a typically manic, highly stylized take on theoretically popular music. Both works are extremely acerbic harmonically, often verging on atonality, but at the same time quite recognizably melodic and often shot through with a curiously haunting, bittersweet lyricism.

In short, these works are very much redolent of their time and place, and if the period or the idiom interests you, then so will these very polished and well recorded performances. There's really nothing more that needs to be said: the players are uniformly fine, with cellist Christian Poltéra making the concerto sound as close to effortless as it probably ever can. The music may be gnarly, but it's also highly virtuosic and often fun (particularly in the Dance Suite), and this latter quality comes through quite effectively. In sum, this is a fine disc, but one for specialized tastes.

Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News

“The two pieces here are terrific: The Tanz-Suite, a chamber work combining the harmonic adventurousness of Schönberg and the toe-tapping rhythms of Stravinsky, and the dense, lovely concerto. An American founded Spectrum Concerts Berlin, a chamber ensemble with ace players from all over the world. They make delicious work of the suite and provide sensitive accompaniment to Christian Poltéra in the concerto. Anyone with an interest in early modernism will eat up this stuff.”

Mike Wheeler

“Looks as though Ernst Toch (1887-1964) is beginning to get the higher profile he deserves…Spectrum Concerts Berlin produces some wonderfully atmospheric playing...It includes some marvellously delicate scoring, which the players realize superbly…It ends with a delightfully wry waltz that goes off at a somewhat caustic tangent before a final cabaret flourish, which the players bring off with great panache…the Berlin players getting their teeth into Toch’s closely wrought contrapuntal textures with nimble virtuosity…it’s odd for Naxos to include these works, written several years before Toch left Germany for the USA, in its “American Classics” series…if you’re new to Toch, make this release your first port of call…performed here with total commitment and in lively fashion and captured vivid sound.”

John H. Beck (Author and former director)
WGBH in Boston and WNYC in New York

“Gustav Mahler occupied a gilded “my time will come” penalty-box of composition for fifty years after his death, and Toch has my vote to succeed him… Spectrum Concerts Berlin does this kind of thing at the prime level, well-rehearsed and truly together throughout this wide-ranging disc…I will be listening many more times to this and the other new recordings, which encourage me to say, Mr. Toch, your time is really coming!”

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