The first question, who will want to own this album? Well...
--Whoever loves the cello will want it for this vibrant, expressive, noble concerto, the solo played by Christian Poltéra.
--Anyone engaged by such 1920-ish transitional pieces as Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" or Milhaud's "Creation du Monde" will find the "Tanz-Suite" a very tasty addition to their collection.
--That perhaps rather small number of people who gather up their art experiences as a way of feeling and tasting our human progress through history - call them "hands-on cultural historians" - will want to hear Toch's very passionate and thoughtful engagement with the socially and artistically turbulent decade of the 1920s in central Europe.
--Whoever enjoys an important discovery will want to come this much closer to Ernst Toch, a badly neglected composer with a lot to say.
--And everyone who thrives on that intimate interplay of a small group of musicians which we are doomed to call "chamber music," will be gratified by the whole album, since Spectrum Concerts Berlin does this kind of thing at the prime level, well-rehearsed and truly together throughout this wide-ranging disc.
I'll say something more about each of these...
The cello doesn't have the breadth of repertory or the regular top billing of the piano or violin, but the great cello pieces take root in their own way. Concerto lovers have more to cheer about from the 20th century than the 19th, and this Toch concerto is wonderfully scored (despite its chamber size you don't miss the other fifty or sixty players) and very imaginative. The first movement is like an exotic garden passing through the seasons in time-lapse photography, the scherzo dapper and nonchalant with little explosions of energy, the slow movement thoughtful and intensely felt as any true Adagio, with a finale that gathers it all well and quickly. If it has a kind of "program," as Mahler claimed all music does, this piece is about creative ferment, the striving for expression. Toch was passionate about music in just that sense.
Speaking of "programs," the dance suite here is an ingenious six-movement tone poem, for a handful of instruments: flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double-bass and percussion. It works through the radicalism, despair and struggle for revival of the post-World War I moment with real psychological depth.
This fascinating and finally joyful music becomes, for me, even richer in its historical context. The opening (Red Whirlwind Dance) is shrilly assertive, and its energy is certainly impressive; but however the young composer might have felt about the very real political Red whirlwinds which were just dying down around him, he penetrates their cultural insufficiency.
The Dance of the Gray that follows is hard to fathom at first; it reveals its core of anguished mourning right at its center, and then the subdued and tentative outer sheaths may be understood for something like the hollow carrying-on of those who have lost what cannot be replaced. (Toch himself served on the Austrian-Italian front, a zone both terrible in its suffering and almost ignored by history. It has been memorialized quite wonderfully in Mark Helprin's novel "Soldier of the Great War.")
The flowing Intermezzo that follows has to work up toward real living again - and cannot sustain it. The Dance of Silence has its lugubrious pacing, but it reverses the second movement: at its heart is a new flowering of simple, gentle happiness.
There is still the legacy of the whirlwind to be digested, and a brief second intermezzo finds the first movement's sharp postures being reintegrated into the everyday circus of living.
The large finale opens mysteriously, as if in the darkness-before-dawn of a night ill-slept. These grays slowly fill with color, however, and the feeling reaches longing but not anguish - when the magic of music-at-dawn unfolds with the music of Richard Wagner. His wife Cosima, newly a mother, was just waking up when these first notes of the Siegfried Idyll sounded outside her window. Toch's awakening is somewhat more complex; there have been real and terrible losses. But birdsong at first light of day - can we close our hearts to this? And now the old waltz sentiment of Vienna mingles with the emotionalism of Wagner (the two old musical opponents reconciled) and together they must find a way to win over the edgy critique of post-war realism. The concluding whirl has some of the old warmth, some of the new energy, united in a simple confidence that life can find its meanings.
This suite is danceable, no doubt, and would serve a choreographer well; but the music alone is acutely timely and rich in emotional meanings, conflicted and resolving. It also illustrates what "modernism" was for composers like Toch: an enlarged palette of salt and sour and even bitter. It does not warm and embrace us as the old music does, but it wakes us up to live in modern times.
About the composer, "neglected" is sadly true, but rather off the point. Important is the word here. 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. If so, Toch has been there now just over forty years. "The rest of Stravinsky" is also a candidate, since we love a handful of his works almost too much, and have never really had the case made for the rest of his music. But with Toch it is the whole life's work that is only beginning to come into view. Fine performances of the fascinating seven symphonies, also out of Berlin, have given us a first full experience there. The string quartets are on disc now, convincingly. And Spectrum Concerts Berlin will follow this CD in a few months with an album with Toch's violin-piano sonata, solo cello impromptus, and piano quintet.
Like other important composers Toch has his own voice and convictions. Self-taught (or should we say, taught by the scores of the Mozart quartets?), he is completely assured and free in his intentions. Neither in angst nor in delight does he want to lull us into dream-land. His melodies are beautiful and his setting of them is always intriguing. His energy and rhythmic sense is striking, and though he did not come from a "cultured" family, he brings a depth and breadth of perspective to his music which adds to its value.
[...]Christian Poltéra has recorded the concerto before, and Spectrum Concerts Berlin had performed it over a year before this live recording was made. The sound of the Berlin Philharmonie Kammermusiksaal is wonderful, and I never noticed the audience. My only quibble with the Spectrum recording is that the dynamic range is very wide in the Tanz-Suite, so that I find myself turning up the inner movements in my not-so-big listening space. Habakuk Traber's interesting notes give Toch's biography in brief along with many insights into the musical structures and contexts of the two pieces.
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!