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Leo Blech (conductor)
150th Anniversary Album
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Egmont: Overture, Op. 84 (1809-10) [8:05]
Coriolan: Overture, Op. 62 (1807) [7:39]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 ‘Eroica’; 2nd Movement: Marcia funebre – Adagio assai (1804) [12:02]
Fidelio: Overture, Op. 72 (1814) [6:19]
Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72a (1805-6) [12:58]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
6 German Dances, D820 orch. Webern [7:29]
Hungarian March (from Divertissement à la hongroise), D818 orch. Liszt [4:06]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat major, D485 (1816) [20:27]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759 ‘Unfinished’ (1822) [23:55]
Symphony No. 9 in C major, D944 ‘Great’ (1825-26) [44:06]
Berlin State Opera Orchestra
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
London Symphony Orchestra
rec. 1919-30
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC627 [79:10 + 68:05]

Though this is a 150th anniversary salute to conductor Leo Blech, Pristine Audio has not been negligent when it comes to other elements of his discography. A series of overtures and dances with the LSO is on PASC 354 (see review). There are also PASC181, an all-Tchaikovsky album, and PASC419, a Richard Strauss disc shared with Klemperer, and various individual Wagner CDs, largely the Potted Ring but also the 1928 Mastersingers highlights with Schorr (PACO065).

Whilst Kleiber, Schalk, Weingartner, Pfitzner, Fried and others were recording Beethoven symphonies in Germany and Austria in the 1920s, Blech never recorded a single one. The nearest he got was two isolated movements, recorded acoustically, one of which is in this twofer. It’s the Funeral March from the Eroica, recorded over two days in October 1919. Previous to that the only other music from the Eroica to have been recorded was a single movement played by the anonymously conducted Paris Opera orchestra in a recording from 1910. Blech’s reading is quite fast but then he was sometimes prone to strong extremes of tempi in his symphonic recordings – though, to be clear, one would expect this movement to be taken very slowly, not quickly, so maybe he was ensuring that the music fitted the four sides that had been allocated.

The Beethoven overtures with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra offer insight into interpretative decision making, orchestral balance, choice of rubati and many other details. Egmont, for example, has a full quotient of theatrical flexibility as one would expect from a conductor whose stage experience was so extensive, whilst Coriolan is tensile and commanding. He had recorded this acoustically back in 1923 with the Berlin Philharmonic, as indeed had Bruno Walter. The advantage of Coriolan, recorded in March 1928, over Egmont, recorded fourteen months earlier, is the advance in recorded perspective; there’s a touch more resonance and less studio constriction in Coriolan. Fidelio comes from the earlier session and Leonore No.3 comes from a few months later; its opening is properly watchful.

The rest of the twofer is given over to Schubert, Webern’s modest orchestrations of the Six German Dances, D820 is played by the Berlin Philharmonic which was not then noticeably superior to the Berlin State orchestra, and the Schubert-Liszt Hungarian March reverts to the latter ensemble and is vigorous and colouristic. The main business of the first CD is Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, recorded in 1930. He’d been beaten to the honour of making the first ever recording of the work by Jascha Horenstein who had recorded it the previous year with the Berlin Philharmonic (you can find it on PASC627; see review). Blech’s Fifth doesn’t open with particularly generous phrasing, slightly hanging fire, but this is clearly deliberate, and the slow movement is certainly not without expressive feel. It’s an assured reading of its type and place and rather more engaged than Horenstein’s.

The second disc houses the Unfinished (Berlin State, 1930) and the Great (LSO, 1927). Both to a greater or lesser extent reveal something of Blech’s romanticist affiliations, some of them extreme. The Unfinished is the more rectitudinous of the two, its opening portentously phrased, the tempo subjected to some elasticity, and the second movement sounding either detached or strangely charming according to the moment. It’s the Great, a première recording on disc, that is more the focus of debate. It differs profoundly from the next recording of the work, made mere months later, by Hamilton Harty and the Hallé ( PASC 282 - see review) which is more complete, as Blech, or his engineers, decided on a cut in the da capo in the Scherzo so that it would fit two sides. Blech’s is a reading of almost militant tempo extremes, with some feisty accelerandos, and it reflects a well worked out approach. Ultimately, though, it’s the obsessive tempo adjustments that stay most in the mind, buttressing the thought that Blech is subjecting the music to distortions it cannot really bear. Fascinating, nevertheless, and an index of Blech’s very forceful approach to symphonic repertoire.

The transfers are in the hands of Mark Obert-Thorn who has produced uniformly excellent results. Side-joins are imperceptible, and the sound spectrum is as wide as possible with an open top. There’s much to ponder with Blech in Schubert and quite a lot to admire in his Beethoven.

Jonathan Woolf

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