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Toch: Piano Concerto No 2, Etc / Andersen, Rotman, Et Al

Release Date: 04/25/2006 
Label:  Talent Records   Catalog #: 70   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Ernst Toch
Performer:  Diane Andersen
Conductor:  Hans Rotman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Halle State Philharmonic OrchestraDanel Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Multi 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.

Confident, fully formed music that really ought to be better known.

Be warned, if you know little or nothing about Ernst Toch don’t rely on the liner-notes. Not only are they poorly translated they’re also inaccurate, as a visit to the Ernst Toch Archive website at UCLA will confirm. Not an auspicious start, then, but what of the music?

Born in Vienna in 1887, Toch was a concert pianist and self-taught composer. He won the Mendelssohn prize for composition in 1910, taking up a teaching position at the music college in Mannheim three years later. His most productive period seems to have been from 1934
Read more onwards, when he dabbled in most genres, including opera and film. He left Europe before the war and, like Schoenberg and Korngold, settled in California. Some of his best work was yet to come, his Third Symphony picking up a Pulitzer in 1956.

Toch was reasonably prolific; there are some 30 or so available recordings listed at online CD sites, mainly the symphonies, the cello concerto and chamber works. Interestingly, some are coupled with pieces by Hindemith, Schreker and Weill, which may give you some idea of Toch’s compositional style.

Certainly the Symphony for Piano and Orchestra – his second piano concerto – sounds closer to Schreker and Weill than Hindemith. Although there is a neo-classical formality to the work – it is in four movements – there is also an element of fun and fantasy in the writing, with sparkling textures and an opening piano salvo at 1:24 that is strongly reminiscent of Prokofiev. Although Toch may have been considered avant-garde in pre-war Europe there is nothing remotely dry or ‘difficult’ about this concerto; indeed the first movement is full of bustle and general joie de vivre.

The mischievous opening to the second movement – Lebhaft – is pure Prokofiev, with some perky interjections from the woodwinds later on. The recording is exceptionally transparent in both its Red Book and SACD forms, which highlights the composer’s many colouristic touches. The sombre rocking theme that starts the third movement is never ponderous, although perhaps one might wish for a weightier string sound at times. That said Rotman and his band shape this Mahlerian Adagio with great feeling. Only the entry of the piano breaks the spell, bringing with it another melancholic strand that culminates in two quiet – and entirely unexpected – tam-tam strokes.

The final movement – Cyclus Variabilis – is the longest and perhaps the most eclectic of all. It has a strong Bartókian flavour, with rhapsodic bursts from the piano and much spikier orchestral textures. And surely those bass lines have more than a hint of Berg about them? These comparisons aside, one is constantly struck by Toch’s lucid, chamber-like scoring, especially in the movement’s more spectral passages.

But this is also a piano concerto and Diane Andersen’s controlled virtuosity is well judged, especially in those fevered passages that begin at 8:40. True, the ascerbic brass and percussion probably sound like Weill, but make no mistake this is not mere pastiche. That final tam-tam stroke is another of those quirky Tochian touches – unheralded but wonderfully apt.

The Staatskapelle Halle, a relatively new ensemble formed in 1948, is recorded in a pleasing acoustic, with a near ideal balance between piano and orchestra. Andersen, a pupil of Stefan Askenase, is a champion of less well known music, including Toch, with whom she seems to have a genuine affinity. Textures are admirably clear, rhythms well defined and the orchestra is commendably alert, alive to all those competing musical influences.

That is certainly the abiding impression in the Quintet for piano and strings. Also cast in four movements – The Lyrical Part, The Whimsical Part, The Contemplative Part and The Dramatic Part – this work is a strange mix of drollery and gravitas. Recorded in the rather unprepossessing Concertgebouw, Bruges, the sound is more up-front than before. That’s no bad thing, as the instrumental strands are always easily discernible. Guy Danel’s expressive cello playing is particularly enjoyable, Andersen now much more of a partner in the mix. And yes it sounds surprisingly lyrical, despite its more declamatory style.

The Danel Quartet pride themselves on tackling a wide repertoire, from Beethoven to Bartók and Shostakovich, and they certainly deliver plenty of the latter’s tang and bite when called for. The last three minutes of the first movement are marvellously done, simultaneously inward and ardent. If one is looking for comparisons here the Shostakovich E minor Piano Trio, Op. 67, comes to mind.

Predictably The Whimsical Part has a fleeting, mercurial quality, never quite settling in one mode or mood. The Contemplative Part has some hushed and introspective string writing – the piano doesn’t appear until much later – and there’s the sense of a mature and original talent at work. There is a touching wistfulness too – just listen to those rising figures that peak and start to fall gently from 8:55 onwards.

Nothing genteel about the whirling final movement, with its run of pizzicato strings and tangled melodies. This is Toch with a glint in his eye, full of high spirits and genial good humour. The players attack the music with great fervour and flair, bringing out the movement’s more astringent harmonies. But it is their sheer weight and intensity of focus that is most impressive.

Talent have done a sterling job with this release, both sonically and artistically, but what a pity the packaging and liner-notes are so crude and amateurish. Carping aside, this is confident, fully formed music that really ought to be better known. Well worth a handful of your hard-earned shekels.

Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Concerto for Piano, Op. 38 by Ernst Toch
Performer:  Diane Andersen (Piano)
Conductor:  Hans Rotman
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Halle State Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926; Germany 
Quintet for Piano and Strings, Op. 64 by Ernst Toch
Performer:  Diane Andersen (Piano)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Danel Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1947; USA 

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