Classical Reissue Reviews

Leo Blech – Overtures and Dances = Works of MOZART, WEBER, CHERUBINI, AUBER, BRAHMS, GRIEG – London Sym. Orch. – Pristine

The Blech experience with the LSO from HMV in 1931 comes back to us in blazing, seamless sound and nothing less than brilliant execution.

Published on September 27, 2012

Leo Blech – Overtures and Dances = Works of MOZART, WEBER, CHERUBINI, AUBER, BRAHMS, GRIEG – London Sym. Orch. – Pristine

Leo Blech – Overtures and Dances = MOZART: Les petits riens, K. 299b – Ballet excerpts; Minuet from Divertimento No. 17 in D Major, K. 334; CHERUBINI: Anacreon Overture; WEBER: Oberon Overture; MENDELSSOHN: Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27; AUBER: Le domino noir Overture; OFFENBACH: Orpheus in the Underworld – Overture; BRAHMS: Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11: Menuetto and Scherzo; GRIEG: Norwegian Dances, Op. 35 – London Sym. Orch./ Leo Blech – Pristine Audio PASC 354, 77:48 [avail. in various formats from] ****:

Conductor Leo Blech (1871-1958) has come to be almost entirely associated with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, so these restored sessions 27-29 October 1931 with the London Symphony Orchestra via HMV bring a host of musical delights. Blech himself led a bizarre life: a Jew, he found favor with Nazi high official Hermann Goering, who had Blech spared in 1941 to find refuge in Sweden. Critic Harold C. Schonberg reports that Blech had a nasty habit of sending opera singers little notes after a performance, indicating their various musical errors. Still, musicians praise Blech’s professionalism, his thorough work ethic, and the consistency of his approach in pieces he knew well, particularly operatic repertory by Wagner, Verdi, and Bizet.

We often find ourselves swept by the sheer speed of orchestral execution, as in the often breathless Oberon Overture of Weber, which rivals the deft precision that Albert Coates could elicit from this same ensemble. A touch of portamento colors on an otherwise literalist reading of the Romantic score. The Cherubini Anacreon Overture, finds a sensitive realization under Blech, a reading just as potent as the 1935 inscription by Willem Mengelberg, and perhaps even more lustrous in detail. Again, the rapid passages proceed with a manic fury that bespeak an amazing discipline in the LSO strings, winds, and brass. The melodic contour of the Mozart excerpts, the Weber, and the Cherubini proves immaculate, a model of clarity and rounded phrases, thoughtful periods, a moment of repose in the midst of sheer bravura energy. With a singular slow poise, the charming Minuet from Mozart’s D Major Divertimento stands out for its clean, graceful, unhurried lines.

Mendelssohn’s passionately meditative response to Goethe, his Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture (1828), enjoys an expansive treatment from Blech, the D Major quite luminous in the upper and low strings, supported by fecund woodwinds. For a performance of equal sonic splendor we must wait for the Carl Schuricht version for Decca some twenty years later. Blech’s inscription, made in Queen’s Hall, London, basks in the grateful sails that a fair wind brings a becalmed ship. The side joins by Mark Obert-Thorn, master restoration engineer for this sterling disc, remains seamless, ensuring our musical prosperity. The music of Daniel Auber (1782-1871) has captivated many conductors, Blech included, to dedicate their energies to Auber’s brilliant orchestral style. Le domino noir (1837) bubbles with fertile and intricate footwork for the strings and winds, a wonderful collage of styles, including Spanish gypsy airs. After my favorite rendition by Jean Fournet, this Blech performance astonishes, its age no barrier to the electrically charged realization of each swirling measure. No surprise, then, that Offenbach’s Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld should shimmer with equally dervish acrobatics, culminating in the devilishly scintillating Can-Can.

Blech leaves the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Adriatic climes for more Northern sensibilities in Brahms and Grieg. Gruff humor pervades the Menuetto 1 & 2 from the Brahms D Major Serenade, though the melody in the strings over cantering winds remains elastic and thoroughly persuasive. Nice French horn work in the virile Scherzo: Allegro, which rather chugs along, suffering only a brief second of crackle. The stately music gains girth and volume, a combination of hunt and ceremonial pageant. The Grieg Norwegian Dances derive from a session at Kingsway Hall, London, and No. 1 literally hurls itself forward, resonant and athletically gripping. The most elegantly “ethnic” of the set, the No. 2 Allegretto tranquillo e grazioso, elicits a suave grace that bursts into a jaunty hornpipe, or more likely halling, of pure exuberance. The martial No. 3 exhibits glassy colors in controlled but vehement sensibilities. Its nostalgic middle section casts a dark intimacy through strings and winds. Allegro molto, the fourth dance under Blech, begins like a dark ballade, a promise of heraldry. Instead, a series of five jolly tunes ensues, some of which assume an oriental color. Blech keeps the panoply of colors moving, the woodwinds bright, the brass resonant. It’s been an evening of real musical adventure, this disc!

—Gary Lemco

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