Music: Toccata Classics

If you are tired of the endless CD duplication of the basic repertoire and wonder what musical treasures may remain unheard, do I have a new label for you. On his 50th birthday this last September, music critic and musicologist Martin Anderson formally launched the Toccata Classics label in London, where this Scotsman lives. I caught up with him a week later to discuss the endeavor and to pick up the first six CD releases. Toccata Classics is the fruition of more than three years of planning and hard work, which had begun a little before I first had the good fortune of meeting Martin in 2002.

At that time, Martin’s name was already familiar to me from years of reading Fanfare magazine, the finest American bimonthly review of classical music. I became sufficiently familiar with Martin’s style that, within a paragraph or two, I could peg a review as one of his. I think he is one of the top several music writers in the English language. In 2003, during my only leave of absence from Crisis in twelve years, Martin substituted for my column. I had to hurry back after three months abroad so that I would not be permanently displaced.

In girth, Martin is an almost Falstaffian figure, with an enormous appetite for beauty and good wine. His incomparable depth of musical knowledge, which he wears lightly, and his enthusiasm make for an infectious combination. He can make you want to hear whatever composition he is talking or writing about and make it seem a crime if you do not. I believe he learned one of the eight languages in which he is fluent so that he could speak with one of his favorite Scandinavian composers.

Aside from his writing, I was also familiar with Martin’s trailblazing efforts at Toccata Press, the book-publishing precursor of Toccata Classics. Fifteen years ago, when I was avidly reading the only existing book on Austrian composer Franz Schmidt’s great orchestral music, Harold Truscott’s The Music of Franz Schmidt, little did I know that Martin was the man behind the publishing house. Among some 23 titles, Martin has also published Experiencing Music: A Composer’s Notes (1991), an invaluable book of writings by Vagn Holmboe, the Danish composer who was quite possibly the greatest European symphonist of the second half of the 20th century. As Martin confided in his July 2003 Crisis column, in reference to a book about Enescu that he had issued, “I publish books on music as Toccata Press, an imprint I set up because I got fed up waiting for other publishers to bring out books I wanted to read.” This same spirit obviously animates his new CD enterprise with respect to music he wishes to hear.

Martin showed me the list of the more than 40 composers whom he will concentrate on in the first several years. As someone who trolls after obscure music, I was stunned that I could not recognize half the names. The names I did know led me to blurt out: “But there is absolutely no consistency here.” To which Martin’s immediate riposte was, “I hope not, except that the music is consistently good.”

The publishing perspective behind Toccata Classics is, as Martin says in his promotional literature, “to reveal that the winnowing process of history often takes little account of quality.” That has exactly been my point in my musical explorations for Crisis and in my book on 20th-century music, Surprised by Beauty. Toccata Classics will illustrate this thesis with composers from the Renaissance to the contemporary era. Releases will include forgotten works from the great masters and great works from the forgotten masters. As a general policy, none will have been recorded before. As Martin’s list demonstrates, there are some extraordinary lacunae. For instance, Martin reports that there are 40 or so Palestrina Masses and hundreds of Lassus motets that have never been recorded. Antonin Reicha, Beethoven’s good friend, apparently wrote some 40 string quartets, of which only one is available on CD.

Forthcoming from Toccata is the complete choral music of Heinrich von Herzogenberg, whose Mass I have sung the praises of in past Crisis columns. Toccata will tackle the complete piano music of Polish composer Alexander Tansman; the superb Dutch composer Julius Rontgen’s chamber music, the string music of Josef Myslivecek, whom Mozart admired; and the string quartets of Hungarian composer Matyas Seiber (1905-1960) and Estonian composer Heino Eller (1887-1970). However, this only scratches the surface. See Toccata’s Web site for more (www.

The first six releases of Toccata Classics that I have perused are a harbinger of high quality. I only have room to mention a few of them. First, there is a CD of von Herzogenberg’s two-piano music that clearly displays his devotion to Brahms in its thick textures (called “almost organ-like” by the excellent annotator and pianist Anthony Goldstone), but that also echoes the marvelous lyricism and power of Schubert’s works for two pianos. Listen to the third variation of Theme and Variations for two pianos, in which Goldstone is joined by his wife, Caroline Clemmow.

Usually I am not particularly interested in transcriptions, because I mostly care about the music as written and not about how it would sound on another instrument. Yet I have been completely taken by Russian cellist Alexander Kniazev’s reworking of three of Mozart’s sonatas for violin and piano. Mozart has not only been transcribed for cello and piano; he has been Romanticized. And it works wonderfully well in these meltingly lovely performances by Kniazev and Russian pianist Edouard Oganessian. This is a special release, particularly if you already know this music. You will be surprised.

I am particularly pleased that Toccata has the nerve to release new music from a relatively unknown contemporary composer, like Englishman Matthew Taylor (b. 1964). In his own CD notes, Taylor describes the start of his Piano Trio as “generally rough and angry” in temper and “highly compressed” in development. Perhaps more interesting than immediately appealing, this deeply thoughtful music, along with the accompanying String Quartet, continues to explore the implications of Beethoven’s revolution in tonal architecture. Like the work of Robert Simpson, to whom Taylor dedicated the Trio, Taylor’s work can seem austere because, although it is tonal, it is intensely concentrated and not highly melodic. The Schidlof Quartet and the Lowbury Piano Trio are ardent, skilled advocates.

The Toccata release of Georg von Bertouch’s Trio Sonatas is exactly the kind of thing to enrich one’s historical perspective. I did not think Scandinavia had anything but cheap German imitations of music until the late 19th century. Yet squirreled away in Norway was this more than respectable Baroque composer, good friend of J. S. Bach’s cousin, and a significant military figure as well. The Bergen Barokk players will lighten the hearts of Baroque music lovers.

At a time when the growth in CD sales has abated, a new classical music CD venture is, to say the least, commercially risky. Martin seems to have done all his business homework, but this is clearly a labor of love. Can it succeed? A classical music CD best-seller is defined by sales of more than 2,000—worldwide. That may seem a pathetically small number, but even major labels set their sights by it. Is this a label only for those who already have everything? As for me, I would rather hear what history has forgotten than acquire yet another recording of the already established “greats.”

Martin has arranged music distributors for many European countries and, by the time of this article’s appearance, may have one for the United States (check the Web site for updates). He has instituted a Discovery Club for those who wish to regularly receive a certain number of releases in their areas of interest, which entitles members to new releases at mid-price. Since I already have ample proof that “history often takes little account of quality,” I’m joining.

  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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