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Steve Schwartz
Classical Net, December 2012

I consider Toch’s Piano Quintet not only one of his best, but one of the Twentieth Century’s. Toch stuffs it with strong invention and exciting counterpoint. The work has four movements: “The Lyrical Part,” “The Whimsical Part,” “The Contemplative Part,” “The Dramatic Part.” I know of few other chamber pieces so satisfying in its entire design as this one.

The performers all do well. Daniel Blumenthal…is the driving engine of most of the works here. The string players are superb chamber partners…Frank Dodge on cello stands out…for his large musical intelligence, not only in the Impromptus, but in the Quintet as well. Of course, there Toch gives the cello and the piano the best opportunities to shine. Blumenthal and Dodge make the most of them. Highly recommended… © 2012 Classical Net Read complete review

American Record Guide, December 2008
The CD-era has brought to Ernst Toch, as it has to so many other unjustly neglected modern composers, much increased recognition among music lovers everywhere. Most of his major works—the symphonies, concertos, chamber and solo piano pieces—are now available on compact disc, more than a few in two or even three recordings. Toch (1887–1964) was born and grew up in Vienna. His career flourished early, in the first three decades of the last century, as he evolved a chromatic but tonally anchored idiom similar to Hindemith (whom he admired) but with a bittersweet, unmistakably Viennese weltschmerz especially apparent in his ornate adagios. Allegros, in strong contrast, tend to be spiky, capricious, and brilliant, driving along with neoclassic clarity and Prokofieffan incisiveness. After Toch fled the Nazis in the 1930s he—like many other European refugee artists—settled in southern California. There he taught, wrote film scores, and tried to recover his public as a composer of concert music. This Naxos anthology of Toch’s chamber music includes works written both before and after his exile from his homeland. The style and voice remain consistent, however, and easily recognizable as Toch’s own. Most substantial, and in truth a masterpiece of its kind—of comparable stature to such other great modern examples of the genre as the ones by Elgar, Shostakovich, Piston, and Giannini—is Toch’s Piano Quintet of 1938. This is a spacious composition, nearly 40 minutes long, cast in four movements, each with a descriptive subtitle suggesting its mood: lyrical, whimsical, contemplative, and dramatic. Sinuous melodies abound, effortlessly fluent yet exquisitely shaped and proportioned. The whole first movement is almost a disquisition on how to generate and deploy long, singing melodic lines in the piano and strings. In III, the emotion become poignant, elegiac; the “contemplation” is infused with longing and regret. Yet the artist’s control never falters, and careful listening reveals how this slow, sad music is derived from the earlier movements. Toch’s Piano Quintet was first recorded in good sound over four decades ago on a Contemporary LP by Andre Previn and the American Art Quartet. That was a polished and loving performance, in good early stereo. (Two archival recordings also came out on LP, both with the composer at the piano, but these are in very dim sound.) The first CD issue was a couple of years ago on Talent 70 (July/Aug 2006). That was very good too, but this new Naxos is better still—more clearly articulated (or at least more clearly recorded), beautifully played, and infused with sensitivity and intelligence. (The Talent CD nevertheless remains indispensable for its excellent first-ever and so far only recording of Toch’s Second Piano Concerto.) Naxos fills out the program with three much smaller but still quite worthy pieces: the compact Second Violin Sonata from 1928, Burlesques for piano from 1923 (the third of these, ‘The Juggler’, quickly became a piano-recital encore staple), and Three Impromptus for solo cello, a pensive, valedictory triptych written in 1963 for Piatigorsky. Violin Sonata 2 is a standout—strongly wrought and expressive, with a dancing, delicate, grazioso central interlude enclosed by urgent, sinewy allegros of commanding power and presence, the whole sculpted with Toch’s signature finesse. The sonata first appeared long ago—my copy is a Discopaedia LP probably taken from 78s—with Louis Kaufman and the composer at the piano, but this new and so much better sounding recording comes as a revelation. I had no idea how brightly this jewel could glitter. Anyone who cares about 20th Century chamber music should hear Toch’s sonatas, trios, quartets, and the 1938 Piano Quintet. This splendidly-performed-and-recorded Naxos disc, with interesting and informative annotations by the composer’s grandson Lawrence Weschler, is a perfect place to begin—or continue.

Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, November 2008

For too many years, Ernst Toch was a figure rarely encountered, certainly never in the concert hall (in over 40 years of concert going I’ve never heard a work of his live) and seldom on record…So why has it taken so long for us to catch up with this composer? I think the answer is fairly easy to find. There’s the obvious time it takes, after the death of a composer, for the public to “re-discover” him even though, to some of us, he never went away!—Alan Rawsthorne, for instance, has only recently started to gain the recognition he deserves, thanks, mainly, to Naxos’s major series of recordings of his music—but the second reason is more pertinent. Toch’s music is non-tonal. It isn’t atonal, far from it, but he treats tonality with a very free mind, and because of this, his music doesn’t flow as easily as some—Hindemith for instance. There are, I have always felt, to be similarities with Hindemith, the same bluff sense of humour, the same questioning use of form and tonality, the superb craftsmanship in the construction of their works…So what do we have on this disk? A bright and zesty Violin Sonata gets things off to a sparkling start. It’s quite short but really full of good things. The Burlesken are a different matter. The word “burlesque” derrives from the italian burla, which means a joke, or the original French word burlesque, which confirms a piece of art as ridiculous and slightly outrageous, but mainly in a funny way. Basically, burlesque means “in an upside down style”. These three pieces certainly do that. The first one is serious, but yet it has a quirkiness about it, the fast middle one continues the idiosyncrasy, whilst the final piece, named The Jugglar, is a rollicking encore piece. The Three Impromptus for solo cello are from a much later period in Toch’s life and they’re more thoughtful, more contemplative, more subtly humorous.

The main work here is a big Piano Quintet and the names of the four movements—The Lyrical Part, The Whimsical Part, The Contemplative Part and The Dramatic Part—seem to sum up Toch’s compositional outlook. The first, lyrical, movement is rich and thickly textured with a strong vein of lyricism and Toch keeps a forward driving Allegro tempo until the end, when a slow, quiet, coda brings matters to rest. The Whimsical Part is a skittish scherzo with contrasting middle section, it is most comical and not, perhaps, what you might expect from this composer. The Contemplative Part is full of gentle lyricism, and there’s a touch of real pathos. The Dramatic Part is all headlong rush and terse argument and, this might come as a surprise, there’s more than a slight hint of Korngold in some of the writing!

Ernst Toch is a very fine composer and it is to be hoped that we can now get to grips with his large and varied catalogue. He deserves our attention and this excellent disk, with fine performances and crystal clear recording, is another step along the way.

Victor Carr Jr, November 2008

Ernst Toch’s 1928 Violin Sonata opens this new Naxos collection of the composer’s chamber music. Read full review at ClassicsToday

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, September 2008

Toch’s 1928 Sonata opens in arrestingly brittle fashion. The ride, we think, will be rocky, the terrain uneven for all the Weimar ethos. But it soon uncoils from its initially forbidding appearance and replaces it with a highly effective light heartedness. The Intermezzo is busy, containing moments of contrasting reflectiveness in assured accustomed, classically-based fashion and the broadly extrovert work ends with a cocksure march and a pile driving conclusion. The performers from Spectrum Concerts Berlin are violinist Annette von Hehn and Daniel Blumenthal and they play it with real authority. I was greatly taken by Hehn’s control of dynamics in the higher positions in the opening movement and by the languid piano playing hereabouts as well. A comprehensively fine case is made for the sonata in this first class traversal.

Burlesken is amongst Toch’s most popular works, certainly for piano, for which instrument it was written in 1923. There are three movements—the first being capricious though flecked with melancholia in the B section. The central panel is dapper, sounding not unlike the kind of piano works Martinů was to write in Paris a little later in its extroversion, but again pursuing that Toch bipartite melancholic pull in a way that the Czech composer wouldn’t have done. The final piece of the three, Der Jongleur, was to become something of a encore favourite. It’s a moto perpetuo firecracker. Who plays it now?

The Quintet Op.64 was written just before the Second World War. Toch gave the movements natty names—The Lyrical Part, The Whimsical Part, The Contemplative Part and The Dramatic Part. Flee flowing and flexible he shows his sure compositional instincts—for balance, proportion, weight distribution and the absorption of the piano into the string texture. The Whimsical movement is the scherzo, full of scurry and a lyrical B section led by the piano and bedecked with pizzicati strings. The slow movement is rarefied, limpid, never somnolent and for a long stretch allowing the string quartet to spin its line unimpeded by the piano. The finale has a rather enervated fugal passage but then ratchets the tension to end unequivocally in triumph.

The Three Impromptus for Cello were written much later in 1963. They’re elegiac, obliquely or not so obliquely Bachian  but also possessing a strength of independence—a kind of quizzical vocal quality that arrests attention. The last of the three in particular has a keening, rapt intensity. The piece was originally intended as a birthday present for Piatigorsky—though its melancholia suggests an ending of things as much as a celebration. Toch died the following year.

This is a first class conspectus of some of Toch’s finest chamber works—strongly, potently and sensitively realised by committed forces in fine sound.

James H. North
Fanfare, August 2008

What a difference there is between Toch’s First Violin Sonata, written in 1912 when he was 25, and this 1928 Second Sonata! In this period of his maturity, before he was forced to flee Germany, Toch’s music was at its peak; he always made it listenable—and often fun—regardless of what “system” he was composing in. The early work is pure Romanticism (he later referred to it as “Brahms’ Fourth Sonata”); this one begins with a spiky, powerful, barely tonal rush and goes on to accommodate many moods, from tender to madcap. A ghostly, dancing Intermezzo follows, and a hard-driving Allegro giusto leaps and prances. It’s a wizard of a piece, one that Stravinsky, Hindemith, or Prokofiev might have been proud to call his own, played to the hilt by violinist Annette von Hehn and pianist Daniel Blumenthal. The three Burlesques for piano (1923) share the same spirit, and Blumenthal delivers sparkling, virtuoso performances.

The cello Impromptus come from 1963, when Toch was 76. He had fled to America, earned a living by composing music for films ranging from Shirley Temple to horror movies, and had then abandoned composition entirely. A late rejuvenation led to seven symphonies and finally to these thoughtful pieces in an elegiac mood: Andante cantabile, Allegretto grazioso, and Adagio con espressione. Cellist Frank Dodge, playing a rich, deep instrument, elevates this solemn music to near-masterpiece status.

The 1938 Piano Quintet, one of the first things Toch wrote in America, is intended to be the pièce de résistance of this disc. One of his largest works, its four movements last 37 minutes. Although still related to Classical structures, the movements are labeled: “The Lyrical Part,” “The Whimsical Part,” “The Contemplative Part,” and “The Dramatic Part.” Toch wrote this commissioned piece against his judgment that piano and strings do not mix. The writing often mirrors his discomfort; although he minimized his problem by writing long passages for each instrumental force, much of the “Lyrical” movement, the “Whimsical” Scherzo, and the buildup to the final coda suffer from his complaint. The opening movement is the weakest, losing focus several times during its 13-plus minutes, but the work gains strength as it proceeds; the “Contemplative” Adagio and most of the “Dramatic” finale are richly satisfying…but Toch was right: the few successful piano quintets in the repertoire are masterpieces that overcome their medium through sheer beauty (Schubert, Dvořák) or pure power (Brahms, Shostakovich), which he cannot equal.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, June 2008

Finally an excellent recording of music struggling to find its place

Ernst Toch did not have an easy time of it; forced to leave Germany due to Herr Hitler’s ascension, he eventually ended up in the Hollywood scene where his quasi-modernist sounding music was felt to be the perfect accompaniment for some rather strange movies. After a while he began to get depressed, resulting in a heart attack in 1948 that nearly killed him. But wonder of wonders, this episode inspired him to an unparalleled period of creativity for his remaining years that brought many prizes and acclaim, including the completion of seven symphonies.

Here we have an excellent sampling of his chamber work, all important, and all pretty much misunderstood. Toch has been accused of being a modernist, but he really isn’t—his music is very much classically defined, always gravitating to a tonal center, but is also music that enjoys playing with chromaticism in order to get to those tonal centers. There is a Brahmsian nature to his work, such as found in his first Violin Sonata, but that is erased by the time we get to the second one, composed in 1928, and already exhibiting the symptoms of tonal wandering. But one comes away impressed with the technical acumen of the writing, and begins to understand why the work was so popular in its time; it should be again, especially with the rich performance that Annette von Hehn provides.

Another popular work in ages past is the Burlesken for piano. This piece was often cut up for encores (especially the last movement, “The Juggler”), and is a thoroughly satisfying piece of music, not a moment of letdown or insubstantial craft. Perhaps the greatest work here is from the previously-mentioned last period of Toch: the Three Impromptus for Cello, a powerful, captivating piece of great moment and substance, played to the hilt by Frank Dodge.

But the biggie here in terms of gravitas and length is the Piano Quintet of 1938. When I first heard Toch’s chamber music I was not impressed, but I am beginning to think that part of the problem was the unnaturally close-up sound of the recordings, intrusive and harsh. This recording, played to perfection by the folks of Spectrum Concerts Berlin, has been captured by Naxos in unusually soft sound that tempers what I initially felt was an uncontrolled predilection to chromatic abandonment. It is amazing the connection we can actually find between the substance and structure of a musical piece with the sonic properties that it is presented in, and how they interrelate (hence the need for this website!). This is an excellent disc, and one that just might show the composer in a new light.

Mary Kunz Goldman
The Buffalo News, May 2008

A bit of music on this disc is tough going—the first movement of the Violin Sonata, for instance. Overwhelmingly, though, it’s glorious. Toch is especially irresistible when he enters his riotous skipping, jumping zone, as he does in the sonata finale and in “The Juggler,” one of the piano Burlesken, which is like a toccata. But the Impromptus for solo cello (written for Gregor Piatigorsky) are engaging in a different, more lyrical way. It’s cute how Toch, in Hollywood style, named the movements of his Viola Quintet “The Lyrical Part,” “The Whimsical Part,” “The Contemplative Part” and “The Dramatic Part.” Thanks to Naxos, the Ernst Toch Society and the Aaron Copland Fund for Music for dusting off this enjoyable music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2008

Few composers who frequently change their style have passed into musical posterity, and it may well be a factor that will stand in the way of our appreciation in a retrospect of Ernst Toch’s output. Born to Viennese parents in 1887, he had survived their apathy towards his life as a musician and was beginning to establish himself as a composer whose stylistic roots were with Mozart when the First World War broke out. The conclusion of the conflict found Toch in Berlin embracing atonality and becoming a leading modernist. With Hitler’s rise to power he travelled via Paris and London to New York. A brief spell teaching preceded his arrival in Hollywood where he worked as an orchestrator of film scores and became much in demand. That experience seemed to drain him of creativity, and it was a heart-attack that was to jerk him back to his original function in life. He began to produce a bewildering quantity of music, much expressed in tonality, and at last he found acceptance in the States as a major composer. In global terms that ended with his death in 1964, his music seldom appearing in European concert programmes. This is the third Toch disc from Naxos and covers instrumental and chamber music, the major item being the Piano Quintet, a work from 1938, three years after his arrival in America and written to a commission from Elizabeth Coolidge. Harmonically and rhythmically it is unusual—I was going to say kinky—but grasps you at the outset, the music proceeding through Toch’s many phases, atonality rubbing shoulders with passages of engaging tonality. It will take me time to like it, but I respect its objectives.The disc begins in 1923 with his piano score Burlesken written in an unusually populist idiom with a brilliant and brief finale. By the time he composed the Second Violin Sonata he seemed confused as to his allegiance to atonality, a sector of his life that had completely vanished by the time the gorgeous Three Impromptus for Cello was composed in 1963. This is a score all cellists should seek for their repertoire. The performances by members of the Spectrum Concerts Berlin are superb, Frank Dodge’s account of the Three Impromptus alone worth the disc’s modest price. Recorded in conjunction with Deutschlandradio Kultur, the sound is nicely detailed.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group