Anna Kokits Plays Toch

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TOCH: Burlesken. 3 Piano Pieces. Capriccetti. 10 Etudes for Beginners. 10 Intermediate Etudes. Echoes from a Small Town. Piano Sonata / Anna Magdalena Kokits, pianist / Capriccio C5293

The music of Ernest Toch (1887-1964) is entirely new to me, and yet I almost feel as if I’ve been listening to his music—or music very much like it—all of my life. No, it’s not that he sounds like a lot of other composers, since he had his own voice, so much as that despite the harmonic and rhythmic quirkiness of his scores, his music is inviting, warm, even witty. It’s as if an old friend called you up on the phone but instead of speaking in words, he or she began speaking in tones.

It’s possible that much of the warmth of this music emanates from the performer. Anna Magdalena Kokits has a very warm, almost relaxed style of playing, allowing individual notes to linger and written pauses to pause a fraction longer. But she also has a sparkling technique that allows her to play such works as the Burlesken No. 3 (“Der Jongleur: Muilto vivo”) with crystalline clarity and outstanding articulation. She’s the kind of pianist who doesn’t have to try very hard to make the music sing; it comes naturally to her.

Kokits discovered Toch’s music when she participated in a performance of his “joke” composition, Geographical Fugue for speaking choir, and fell in love with it, but she didn’t start to pursue his music seriously until she played as pianist in his Cello Sonata Op. 50, which she calls “a work of veritable genius.” Getting more and more into his piano music as time went on, she reports that:

What has always fascinated and impressed me about his works – particularly those written after 1918 – is their reduction to the essential and substantive. Every note conveys the impression of being absolutely necessary, and not one is superfluous or replaceable. Ernst Toch’s music is convincing, and his story moves me in such a special way that I feel a great need to make his music accessible to a broader public again and to contribute my share towards reintegrating the “most forgotten composer of the 20th century” – as he often called himself in the final years of his life – into musical life today.

This is as apt a description of this music as you will find, to which I will add that its rhythms are generally sprightly and engaging and his sense of advanced harmony just enough to entice the serious listener without overwhelming the more conservative ones with chordal confusion. The end result, this combination of wittiness with modern harmony, almost makes him sounds like a cross between Bartók and Satie. There’s not only no wasted notes or gestures in his music, but also never a dull moment. Toch kept things moving and never overstayed his welcome.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt his cause that nearly all of his piano works are incredibly short. Most run no longer than a minute and a quarter; many of them are under a minute in length. Even the Piano Sonata is densely written, the first movement being only 2:51, the second movement 1:46 and the third 2:15. The longest piece on the entire album is the very first Burlesken at 3:23—practically a Sermon on the Mount so far as Toch is concerned.

Since there are 48 tracks on this CD it wouldn’t do to describe every one. Suffice it to say that wit and charm infuse virtually every piece here. Although the 10 Etudes for Beginners really are etudes, designed to build up finger strength and technique, not necessarily for listening, they are indeed charming pieces when played by a skilled artist like Kokits. The 10 Intermediate Etudes really are challenging music, and here Toch is in his element, writing music that is rapid-fire yet charming in his curiously cockeyed sort of style.

Perhaps not surprisingly, even Toch’s Piano Sonata has the same light character and charm of his little vignettes. All in all, an utterly charming and unique composer, played in a charming manner by Kokits!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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