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CD & Download: Pristine Audio

Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no.5 in E minor, op.64 (1888) [40:43]
Serenade for strings in C major, op.48 (1880): II Valse [4:00]; IV Finale - tempo Russo [4:23]
Capriccio Italien, op.45 [8:19]
Berlin State Opera Orchestra/Leo Blech
rec. Beethoven-Saal, Berlin; 23 March 1928 (op.45), March 1929 (op.48), October 1930 (op.64)
Experience Classicsonline

Probably best recalled today for his skilful accompaniments to some of Fritz Kreisler’s concerto recordings - Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms - Leo Blech has been largely overlooked among such stellar fellow conductors as Kleiber, Klemperer and Furtwängler, all of whom were working in Weimar Berlin at the same time.

But Blech’s own career in the city was also quite a distinguished one - including spells as First Conductor at the Royal Opera 1906-1918, Chief Conductor at the State Opera 1918-1923 and First Conductor at the same institution 1926-1937. Indeed, the fact that Blech, a Jew, survived and continued working for the first four years of the virulently anti-Semitic Nazi regime - personally protected, it is said, by no less than Hermann Göring himself - is a clear indication of his standing.

Blech has sunk into relative oblivion today largely because he failed to produce more than a handful of substantial recordings. Instead, his HMV producers tended to confine him to supplying the market of middle class record buyers with what it generally wanted - overtures, brief orchestral showpieces and those notorious Wagnerian “bleeding chunks”. The same was true of, say, Furtwängler in this period, as the recent Naxos Furtwängler: the early recordings series has shown, but whereas the better known conductor went on in the 1930s to record more and more substantial works, Blech - whether protected by Göring or not - generally did not.

That, of course, makes his few symphonic recordings from this period all the more valuable. He recorded Haydn (symphonies 88 and 94), Mozart (34), Schubert (5, 8 and 9) and just one late 19th century Romantic symphony - Tchaikovsky 5 as heard here. This new Pristine Audio disc collects all Leo Blech’s Tchaikovsky recordings from this period and it is a real eye-opener.

Just the opening notes of the symphony come as a real surprise. One is immediately struck by the depth and perspective that the restoration process expertly engineered by Mark Obert-Thorn - here getting, for once, a fully justified credit on the CD’s front cover - has managed to reveal. It is almost as if we are in a real concert hall.

The second thought that quickly occurs is that Blech is in no way inclined to hurry the music unnecessarily. It is a common assumption that 78 rpm-era conductors were encouraged to race everything along in order to accommodate the medium’s rapid side breaks but that is certainly not so here. Instead, as we shall see later, Blech “economises” by cutting material rather than rushing the music. The symphony’s opening movement is characterised by qualities that will be apparent throughout the symphony as a whole. Blech offers a relatively sober interpretation - dramatic but without any histrionics, still less hysteria; he adopts a quite deliberate basic pulse that presses the music consistently on; his control of dynamics is subtle but exemplary; and the balance he achieves - especially between strings and woodwinds - is very fine.

It is in the second movement, of course, that Blech’s resistance to the heart-on-sleeve approach is most obvious. He is cool and restrained and his insistence on maintaining the score’s underlying pulse means that he generally chooses to press on rather than lingering to emote. Thus, he resolutely refuses to indulge the movement’s “big tune”. If you like your tune really big, by the way, check out Howard Hughes’s movie Hell’s Angels, made in the same year as this Blech recording, where Hugo Riesenfeld rearranges it for the opening credits in such a way that you’ll be shedding tears before the tragedy on screen has even begun!

Incidentally, it is worth noting at this point that, in contrast to the remarkably “real” sound produced by the other sections of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra on this recording, its brass sounds quite “tubby”: it certainly does not gleam and, in Tchaikovsky’s biggest emotional rushes, fails to ring out over the rest of the orchestra as we expect. The impact of its interjections is therefore comparatively muted and undramatic. Is this a deliberate characteristic of Blech’s interpretation or perhaps just a deficiency in the recording process? As Private Eye magazine frequently puts it, I think we should be told. [But we are not: both the CD notes and the “full notes” promised on the Pristine Audio website - which turn out to be a reprint of the CD notes plus the Wikipedia entry on Blech - are silent on the matter.]

A slow, deliberate opening tempo to the third movement - less emphasis on the allegro than on the moderato - quickly picks up steam and allows the highly accomplished Berlin string players to show that Tchaikovsky’s skittish writing poses no problems for them. The woodwind, too, flattered by Blech’s finely crafted orchestral balance and the clear recording acoustic, are shown to best advantage.

And so to the finale ... Much of a piece with the rest of the conductor’s overall interpretation, it is characterised by a sense of no-nonsense purposeful direction - looking at my notes, “purposeful” was the word that kept repeating itself again and again. After a clear cut opening, Blech and his orchestra stride deliberately on with no inclination to over-indulge the episodic moment. Thus, for instance, the dramatic - indeed, potentially melodramatic - eruption at 2:27 makes much less of an impact than usual. The plus side of that way of looking at the score is that it emerges as rather less fragmented than is sometimes the case. For Blech, the end is always in clear sight and the sheer momentum that he generates takes us successfully through a number of quite minor cuts to the score almost without noticing them.

“ Cuts” are, however, a more significant issue in the other works on this disc. In the Serenade for strings we actually lose completely two of the four movements (and, interestingly enough, while the self-evident constraints of 78 rpm recording mean that we ought perhaps to see what we have here as two individual party pieces rather than half of a suite, as late as 1950 Furtwängler himself chose to record just these same two movements of the four). Of the Valse and Finale that we have here, Blech still cuts individual passages, but the results are, on their own terms, most enjoyable. The Valse, initially rather slow and deliberate, is well phrased and colourful, with the conductor bringing out sound quite Spanish-sounding rhythms that had escaped me before. Here, once again, Blech’s skilful control of dynamics shows off the characterful Berlin players at their best. Severely pruned though it is, the Finale is another success, purposeful (again!), propulsive and allowing the well balanced strings to demonstrate their undoubted virtuosity in Tchaikovsky’s trickily skittish passages.

I am afraid that Capriccio Italien is so brutally cut that it would be bettered entitled, in this version, The best of “Capriccio Italien”. Another recorded performance (Svetlanov’s) taken randomly from my shelves comes in at 14:13, as opposed to Blech’s at 8:19. Thus, the latter is clearly a musicological curiosity rather than a musical interpretation. In spite of a generous acoustic, the orchestra’s brass section still refuses to gleam, though the strings are very fine. One is tempted to think that the rush through the final pages was caused by the embarrassment of all concerned and their desire to get the whole thing over and done with. Still, for the sake of completing the overview of Blech’s Tchaikovsky interpretations from this period, it is good, I suppose, to have it.

This is, then, a fascinating disc on several levels. I suspect that, when the Pristine Audio website headlines its notes “Fabulous Tchaikovsky in astonishing sound quality... Mark Obert-Thorn resurrects a truly astounding 5th symphony”, it is slightly over-egging the pudding, at least as regards the performance. Nevertheless, this disc offers us a most useful opportunity to hear a largely forgotten - and clearly very gifted - conductor from this most productive of musical eras. Now, come on Pristine Audio - can you do the same for my own particular favourite, Max von Schillings?

Rob Maynard




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