TOCH:  String Quartet No. 7, op. 15.  Dedication.  String Quartet No. 10, op. 28. 
Buchberger Quartet
cpo 999 775-2 {F} {DDD}  TT:  59:55

  Toch wrote about a dozen string quartets, five of which are lost.  He began early, still a youngster.  By age 18, he had mastered the technique of writing for strings and demonstrated the ability to write a long, complex argument.   Although in his early twenties he had some encounter with formal instruction,  Toch taught himself almost completely.  Indeed, as an adolescent, he had to compose in secret (his parents wanted a doctor in the family).  His first two surviving string quartets (No. 7 is the second, if that's not confusing enough), written before formal instruction, show a composer with very little to learn from a classroom or a weekly lesson.

The Quartet No. 7 uses a neo-Brahmsian idiom with a sure grasp of form.  It's an early work, but not juvenilia, even though not in Toch's more characteristic dissonant Modernism.  The first movement is a fairly straightforward sonata-allegro.  The second movement, however, gives us a foretaste of the mature, idiosyncratic composer.  It's a scherzo-with-trio reversed, the scherzo passage occupying the center of the movement and surrounded by a simpler andante.  The third movement reverts to the normal scherzo-with-trio (or in this case, two trios).  The finale seems an homage to Mozart.  Many of the rhythmic and melodic patterns seem to come from Mozart's chamber works (particularly the g-minor string quintet).  This shouldn't surprise those of you already familiar with Toch, since he considered Mozart his principal "teacher."  It's certainly the most complex movement, formally speaking.  Throughout, the string quartet is not merely expert, it invents new textures and sounds great, besides.  Toch's European reputation rested mainly on his chamber music, particularly on his quartets.  Ensembles kept asking him for new work, and one can easily see why. 

Toch wrote the tenth quartet in 1921 (it premiered in 1923).  The First World War had intervened, and Toch had served.  The Brahms echoes are still present, though far reduced.  Toch begins to walk a Modern path.  To some extent, it's a "trick" quartet.  All the themes derive from the name "BASS" - Hans (or John) Bass, Toch's cousin, who had bought Toch the gift of a complete Mozart edition.  At one level, the quartet is a composer's thank-you card.  Since note-names are letters in English and in German, composers can spell out words.  Bach, of course, spelled out BACH (in the German system, Bb-A-C-B-natural) in several compositions.  Toch, in a characteristic turn of ingenuity, creates two basic themes on  "BASS":  Bb-A-Eb-Eb (S = Es in the German system = Eb) and Bb-Ab-Eb (Ab = As).  In other words, he works with a four-note cell and a three-note cell for an entire quartet.  I have no score to check, but it doesn't sound as if absolutely every important motive relates to those notes.  Instead, what seems to happen is that the general thematic shapes are present, engender other ideas, or lurk in the background, reveal themselves, and lurk again.  In the slow movement, for example, the three-note version appears as a "head" or "tail" to more prominent ideas.  The relaxed geniality of the seventh quartet, however, has receded.   Whatever humor may reside in the work has taken on an edge.  The first movement, another sonata, grinds and grates.  The slow movement begins with a deeply sad chorale, filled with regret.  The most consonant, harmonically-conventional movement of the four, it doesn't paint a simulacrum of grief.  The emotion seems to come from actual experience.  It will genuinely break your heart - furthermore, several times throughout its course. The most interesting movement for me (also the shortest) is the third, a scherzo marked "Katzenhaft schleichend ..." (slinking around like a cat).  The strings slide about a harmonic no-man's land to a slippery little waltz.  It insinuates itself like a cat around your legs.  The general feeling reminds me a bit of the slow movement of Hindemith's third string quartet (written later, though premiered earlier than the Toch).  Toch ends with a sonata, which continually seems to promise some sort of psychic resolution, but such moments last only briefly.  Indeed, when they occur, they seem almost satiric or teasing.  Indeed, the idea that brings on such moments occurs at the end in a swarm of Angst-laden runs from which a final major chord is ripped.  No affirmation here. 

Dedication comes from 1948 -- a pièce d'occasion --  written for the marriage of Toch's daughter to Irving Wechsler.  Their son, Lawrence, author of a pioneering article on Toch introduced many of us to this composer.  It's four lovely minutes of Toch reverting to his Late Romantic idiom.  At times, it even sounds a bit like the Schoenberg of Verklärte Nacht, although far more cleanly written and thematically focused. 

The Buchberger Quartet handles these works with grace.  They do, however, miss the warmth of the seventh quartet.  It's a bit as if they preferred to lecture rather than have a conversation (more Viennese, less German, please).  Nevertheless, intonation, balance, and architectural smarts they have in spades, and they get completely the restiveness of the Quartet No. 10. 
S.G.S. (August 2004)