Ernst Toch (1887-1964) was largely self-taught, from a middle-class Vienna Jewish family, but attained prominence in the Weimar Republic before the rise to power of the Nazis. Toch's composing career was interrupted and disrupted when he went into exile, but not totally destroyed. He wrote mainly chamber music, and created one of the finest string quartet cycles of the 20th century, eight quartets that should be heard alongside those of Bartok, Schoenberg, and Shostakovich (see my review). Toch was from a generation that no longer wrote symphonies -- it was considered a dead form. He only turned to symphonies late in his exile, and wrote seven between 1950 and 1964, all of which are found in this set. Alun Francis leads the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB) in performances that were recorded for CPO in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche Berlin between 1995 and 2002. The RSB was a leading orchestra of the DDR (East Germany), and remains a superb orchestra today, led by Marek Janowski.
Symphony No. 1, Op. 72 (1950) 39'52
Symphony No. 2, Op. 73 (1951) 32'20
Symphony No. 3, Op. 75 (1953) 27'49
Toch's first three symphonies were regarded as a unified group by the composer. They follow standard symphonic form, unlike his subsequent symphonies. In these works Toch was working through the devastation of the war and the genocide, to which he lost many relatives. These symphonies were not written in the U.S., but in Vienna and Switzerland, where Toch resided in the 1950s. He quit his position at USC and left Los Angeles after a heart attack in 1948 precipitated by severe emotional crisis, and returned to Vienna to write.
The First is Toch's longest and most ambitious symphony. Many influences, or at least similarities, can be heard, including both the German and French sides of early 20th century music -- Debussy, Les Six, Mahler, and the Second Vienna School -- but Toch's Modernist-inflected writing is moored in tradition. The first movement is a long, quiet introduction. The second and fourth are fast movements, and you can hear the attempt at a grand, heroic finale building on the protracted development, but I do not find it to be successful. Toch has a very concise, energetic voice in his string quartets which he never finds in his symphonies.
The symphonies become shorter after this, and the Second and Third are his best. More concise than the First, they represent a distillation of his thought. I would choose the Second as his best -- it sounds more like Shostakovich than the others -- though it was the Third that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1956. It was commissioned to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish community in the U.S., and it includes a cheerful march in the first movement that reminds me of Martinu's Fourth Symphony not only in its optimism, but in seemingly being optimistic about the same event, the victory of the Allies over the Nazis. Even at his best, I find Toch's symphonic writing to be episodic. There is plenty of good, quite sophisticated orchestral writing, but a solid architecture is not maintained throughout. Compared to the symphonies of the same time period of Shostakovich, Hartmann, Henze, Martinu, and Honegger, I do not find Toch's to be as compelling.
Symphony No. 4, Op. 80 (1957) 26'45
Symphony No. 5, Op. 89 (1963) 23'51
Symphony No. 6, Op. 93 (1963) 22'25
Symphony No. 7, Op. 95 (1964) 22'18
Already moving away from tradition with the three-movement Third, Toch stopped working with the traditional symphonic form altogether with the Fourth Symphony and turned to a looser structure, something more like a tone poem. These remaining symphonies become less Germanic and more French-sounding, and they also sound more like film music. Toch made his living in exile substantially from writing film scores, so this is not surprising. The Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Symphonies were written in the U.S. after his return from Europe, and he wrote feverishly until his death in 1964. He never regained the position he held in Berlin, where he was a leading composer along with Hindemith, Krenek and Weill, not in his lifetime. But we can now more fully appreciate his craft.
The CPO four-disc jewel box does not include new liner notes, but the same booklets included with the three original discs. If you want to sample Toch's symphonies without hearing the entire cycle, I recommend the disc with Symphonies 2 & 3. If you prefer more fluid orchestral writing, less symphonic-sounding and more like a tone poem or a film score, then you might prefer the disc with Symphonies 5, 6 & 7. I don't know who might prefer the remaining disc, which includes Symphonies 1 & 4.
Rob Barnett's review for MusicWeb includes seemingly exhaustive documentation of previous recordings of these works, which I will not repeat. Suffice it to say that Toch did have champions, including Koussevitsky and Antal Dorati, and there were recordings, but these would be unknown to most younger listeners today.
Alun Francis, the RSB and CPO have done a great service by making the Toch Symphony Cycle available!