Leo Blech 150th Anniversary Album – Pristine Audio

by | Apr 21, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Leo Blech 150th Anniversary Album = BEETHOVEN: Egmont Overture, Op. 84; Coriolan Overture, Op. 62; Fidelio Overture, Op. 72; Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a; Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “:Eroica”: Marcia funebre; SCHUBERT: 6 German Dances, D. 820 (orch. Webern); Hungarian March, D. 818 (orch. Liszt); Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, D. 485; Symphony No. 8 in B Minor “Unfinished,” D. 759; Symphony No. 9 in C Major “Great,” D. 944 – Berlin State Opera Orchestra/ Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/ London Symphony Orchestra/ Leo Blech – Pristine Audio PASC 627 (2 CDs) 79:10; 68:05 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:

Leo Blech (1871-1958) represents a truly nervous intersection of art and politics, an active Jewish conductor in Berlin during the advent of the Nazi regime, who survived the Holocaust largely through the intervention of Hermann Göring and because of Blech’s great personal popularity. Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn commemorates the 150th anniversary of Blech’s birth with selected performances of music outside of Blech’s usual operatic repertory, recorded 1919-1930. 

The opening Egmont Overture with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra (24 January 1927), despite some thin resonance, benefits from canny phrasing and steady pulsation, implying the political menace that must explode into justifiable rebellion. The potent C Minor Overture Coriolan (15 March 1928) injects an immediate energy and dramatic focus that does not abate. Remarkably similar in pace and momentum to the Mitropoulos recording from Minneapolis in 1940, we might wonder if the Greek’s tenure in Berlin made him familiar with Blech’s concept. The Fidelio Overture (24 January 1927) injects a sense of mystery into the early pages, maintaining the theme clearly in the middle voices and then expanding in dramatic girth. The orchestral definition from these shellacs lacks the kind of resonance that Coates and Beecham could exact from HMV. Still, Blech’s coda in Fidelio has a definite urge to moral victory. The most ambitious of Beethoven’s overtures, the Leonore No. 3 in C Major (6 April and 20 June 1927), provides a lyric spaciousness to the early pages, moving by degrees to the stratified textures that include the blazing horn call to resistance to tyranny that, in turn, calls forth a fiery coda.

Blech never recorded a complete Beethoven symphony, but we do have restored to us his October 1919 acoustic of the slow movement of the Eroica, one of two such items, the other’s being the finale of the Fifth Symphony. Thin, often nasal sounding woodwinds and vague lower strings abet a rather quick reading of the funeral march; but recall that this document pre-dates any complete recording of the work. If you seek a contemporary, legendary conductor in the Fifth, we have Artur Nikisch on the Dutton label, if you care to make the investment,

The Schubert group opens with Anton Webern’s 1931 gentle orchestration of 6 German Dances (18 April 1932), and the transition back to the electrical recording process feels most welcome. Blech takes the first of the dances as a da capo repeat. Editor Obert-Thorn speculates that the violin solo in the fifth dance comes by way of Szymon Goldberg, then leader of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Liszt arrangement of the Hungarian March derives from Schubert’s two-piano Divertissement in Hungarian Style. The addition of tambourine, cymbals, and sliding strings gives the music a pomposo quality we might expect from Eugene Ormandy.

Blech’s 2 October 1930 reading of the Schubert Symphony No. 5 feels deliberately bucolic in character, more in character with Bruno Walter. The eminently vocal style in Schubert reigns throughout, with any sacrifice of the few, darker moments in Schubert’s wonderful symphony without trumpets or drums. The dark beauty of the Unfinished Symphony (11 March and 15 June 1930) with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, despite some wicked accelerations, conveys potent drama, on a par with the readings that Fritz Lehmann and Bruno Walter bequeathed us. Blech wrings virile emotion from Schubert’s version of Romantic sturm und drang in this most familiar concert staple. The breathed quality of the famous G Major melody and it subsequent harmonization lingers in our collective memory. The E Major Andante con moto proves equally haunted, and Blech leads the music almost in mirror-image to the opening Allegro moderato. Fine woodwind playing marks this hazy progression, at least until moments of thunder come crashing down. The horn line does much to support the clarinet and oboe, and the strings intone as sad a melody we have ever heard. In terms of “traditional,” German interpretation, this reading warrants the price of admission.

For those who savor non-traditionalist readings, the Schubert Ninth symphony (15 November 1927) with Blech’s leading the London Symphony should more than suffice. As Obert-Thorn notes, Blech boasts the first “almost” complete—lacking the da capo repeat in the Scherzo—version of this grand symphony, pre-dating the issue of the performance by Sir Hamilton Harty (also transferred to CD by Obert-Thorn, PASC 282) by two months. The manic pace set by Blech would seem to correspond to the kind of driven propulsion Albert Coates demanded of the LSO, say, in his willful reading of the Mozart Jupiter Symphony on PASC 455 and yes, edited by Obert-Thorn. That the London players meet every demand in this frenetic interpretation does them admirable credit as a disciplined ensemble. It seems rare to compare Leo Blech to the equally manipulative Willem Mengelberg, but there it is. Our esteemed editor and restoration master calls the performance “an exhilarating roller coaster ride through Schubert’s most expansive symphonic score,” and I feel obliged to agree.

—Gary Lemco 

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