ERNST TOCH – String Quartets Nos. 6 and 12

German composer Ernst Toch [1887-1964] wrote thirteen string quartets. The first seven remain unpublished, and he certainly got going early, as No. 6 was composed when he was seventeen. The progression from 6 to 12 is quite pronounced. The sixth is a conservative work, while the twelfth is fully mature.

SQ No. 6 is in four movements, and opens with a magnificent melody and very orchestral playing. The sound levels out into a charming passage where melodies flow effortlessly. A change to the minor key brings a different mood; very refined. Some more orchestral-sounding writing unfolds before it reverts back to an earlier passage. The minor key brings forth another alluring melody which turns out to be the heart of the movement. This section moves through many different textures, from solo violin to the Berlin Philharmonic – well almost, anyway. A cello steps out to craft a melody, which is significant and is sustained for some time before being subsumed back into the ensemble. As we near the end, forceful chords abound, before it finishes with a flourish.

The next movement, marked andantino (lighter than andante, and usually quicker), begins with a very Dvorakian sound. The sound is very close to one of the movements from Dvorak SQ No. 10, which I reviewed in March, 2017. Swirling violin melodies evoke folk-like material. Eventually, a solo violin takes centre stage before handing back to the full ensemble as they investigate another Dvorak melody. There are subtle rhythmic changes. Suddenly the ensemble jumps into life, with a very rhythmic passage; it positively races with frantic violin phrases being presented at speed. A slight relief evokes that Dvorak motif again, and multiple variations ensue. A new melody now takes over, beautifully written before the sound of Dvorak returns for a final time. A very gentle section has the violins with an ascending phrase to conclude.

The third movement, another andante, is ever so peaceful, until the violins reach into a high register. This is a very romantic sound and a change into a delightful waltz allows the violins to portray a lyrical feeling. The cello joins in the melody and brings about a dramatic change; this is totally out of character for the movement. The composer builds a wall of sound and intensity, which gradually subsides into another waltz passage. The violins are very delicate and it could be Schumann, or even Mozart. Another dramatic flurry ensues with quivering bows being the order of the day. Now the music settles and fades out ever so slowly.

The final movement opens with a strong chord which leads into a very rhythmic ensemble passage. A violin furnishes the propulsion with some fine playing and busy melodies. The intensity drops slightly, although the tempo remains the same. Now the intensity rises again with harmonic changes leading to development of melodies. The full rhythmic feeling returns for a short while but, again moves back to a more peaceful place. This is actually the shortest movement in the work, but it has a feeling of epic proportions. It finally succumbs and ends on a flourish.

While the Sixth Quartet was Toch’s first extant composition in the genre, the twelfth was the first major work undertaken after WW II. SQ No. 12 is forty years and a world away from the sixth; there is a striking difference both in conception and realisation. The twelfth is in four movements.

The first, marked calmly, opens with two violins locked into an abstract intertwining soundscape. The mood is quietly passive despite its insistence. After several minutes of stasis the movement bursts into life with a loud passage featuring melodic lines that are more atonal. They gradually diminish in intensity, all the way back to a solo violin. The opening mood is again evoked, with the cello now playing a more prominent role. The end comes with a melodic violin and murmurs from the ensemble. This movement is a terrific piece of atonal abstraction.

The next movement opens with loud atonal musings which soon dissipate into another world. The cello leads the violins into a another stunning  piece of abstraction. The intensity rises and falls, such that all that is heard are two violins in a duet, filled with intimacy. The duet takes a more melodic turn and the cello joins in a passage that spirals up, revealing some use of microtones. Now it briefly drops back to a violin duet; such a longing feeling. A minimal violin phrase fades to a conclusion. This is another tour de force.

The third movement starts with a more conservative, rolling passage, which evokes a gentle feeling. The melodies are quite lyrical, but it is the intertwining that captures my attention; it continues throughout the whole movement. A mood change brings with it a rhythmic emphasis. The violins are stronger now but the lyricism remains. A touch of pizzicato allows for a brief relief, while the cello walks, jazz-like, through the section. This is a relatively static movement, but still delightful in its innocence. A few gentle chords lead to a final violin phrase.

The final movement features a loud, gaudy opening, with the violins crowding each other. Now the intensity drops and the cello plays a repeated note. We have a brief snippet of the opening again, before returning to a mild passage. A pause reintroduces the opening mood, played very loudly. The violins compete, seemingly on different stages. Again the intensity drops and one violin carries a motif while the other soars. Some string sound effects introduce a strong passage until the motif returns. There is nothing intimate about this music, but it is wonderful in its strength. A key change adds to the chaos as the violins continue to spar. A heavy chord brings about some violin musings which produce a closing phrase.

This quartet is a marvellous piece of sustained, busy, abstract beauty. I think I shall leave it at that.

Most of Toch’s string quartets have been released as a series, but I fear some have been deleted. This disc, titled Ernst Toch: String Quartets 6 & 12, on the CPO label, performed by the Verdi Quartet, with a striking red cover, is still available on Amazon US and UK, albeit as New and Used.

This CD is also on Spotify, along with two others of the series. There are many of Toch’s quartets on earsense and several on YouTube.

Listenability: A wonderful CD, showing two sides of the composer.


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