Arthur Bloomfield’s Blazing Batons: Visiting the Great Berlin Maestro Leo Blech (1871-1958)

A proper headline for this essay, and a banner one too, should proclaim: LEO BLECH GREAT VERDI CONDUCTOR. One rather expects a German with excellent Berlin credentials — and a crisp little name, by the way, that means “tin,” but Blech had no tin ear — to be the genius he was with Wagner. But the grace, drama and stunning power of his Verdi as demonstrated in at least a couple of overtures and a full act of Aida were, I suppose, less predictable.

[Below: Conductor Leo Blech; resized image of an historical photograph.]

That parade of nouns is not quite specific enough: what makes Blech’s Verdi so fetching is the combination of long rounded lines with surfaces smooth as marble, the maximum application of legato (old Chinese gentlemen doing tai chi in the park trace no finer arcs), a tendency toward slowish tempos promoting stateliness or suspense as the case may be, the graceful but zippy accelerandi that can magnetize these tempos into “real world” urgencies, and then we must mention too the reserves of power for mellow yet inexorable climaxes.

The prelude to Aida, in a January ’39 performance at the Stockholm Opera, Blech weaves into a baby symphonic poem. Record in your notebooks the intense sweetness of the high-reaching first violins’ pp morendo just before the priests’ theme enters in the cellos, this theme coming on velvety and fatigued, as if Blech were conjuring a pack of doddering but powerful politicians . . . then after a climax and with the pp dolcissimo of the Aida theme Blech subtly initiates a searching rubato that eases in the fifth and six bars of this poetic paragraph, filled with lovely violin arpeggiations, into an ineffable dreaminess (“perchance to . . .”) just before the rude awakening of Verdi’s military-sounding incalzando e crescendo, armored with accents.

No wonder the great bass Alexander Kipnis who sang many times with Blech in Berlin told an interviewer he “had a lyrical approach almost to everything.”

After Radames’ big aria the melodious but fraught duet and trio involving the opera’s famous love triangle are paced by Blech about two notches on average below Verdi’s assorted metronome markings, but always in proportion. Blech knows he will gain tension thereby, tragedy will have its say, and then too there are Verdi’s requests for grazioso, dolcissimo, espressivo and cantabile to be attended to.

There are two extant versions of Verdi’s Forza del Destino overture by Blech, a late Twenties studio version with the Berliner Staatskapelle and a “live” performance before a coughing April audience in the same city’s Titania cinema in 1952. The performances are impressive. Especially in the earlier one (the octogenarial ’52 is relatively subdued but still fiery in its fashion) we experience Verdi’s music gliding elegantly, with much moody rubato, atop the very slippery ground of high melodrama: this is a world of missed connections, quick exits, endless uncertainty, bad dreams of course.

Blech faces the dramatic challenge with a wide Max Fiedler-like range of tempo to deal with every sort of moment from private to hectic. An unscored accelerando hustles the music up to the pocket solos of clarinet, oboe and flute halfway along, and there’s another mad dash of the most artistic sort on the doorstep of the mighty chorale about midway through the overture’s second half.

Well, a forceful Destiny can certainly put one in a dither. But refinement is everywhere: when has the piano espressivo cantabile of the clarinet’s big allegro brillante after those little solos sounded so restrained in volume, so aristocratic? Well perhaps with Georg Solti at Covent Garden fifty years ago.

[Below: Leo Blech conducting Johann Strauss; resized image of an historical photograph.]

Another “live” Blech experience is the challenged chunks of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger salvaged by some mad profesesor of a recording editor from the Berliner Staatsoper’s 1928 performance celebrating the 115th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. Abrupt discontinuances aside, there’s much here to show Blech the subtle and affectionate Wagnerian in action: the devout, meditative first act chorale, the nocturnal illumination of Sachs’ rapt monolog early in the second act, etcetc. And in a rare issue of Goetterdaemmerung excerpts from the same period, apparently a “studio” affair, there’s as tender an unfolding of the Zu Neuen Thaten love duet as one will ever hear.

Meanwhile a recording of the “Tannhäuser” overture becomes almost frantic with passion, the connubial duet of first stand violins midway along sounding windswept with a capital W — I see the music flying into space as a pair of mustachioed Berliners in Ludendorffian crew cuts grasp their fiddles for dear life, their gold watch chains jiggling on their vests.

Now those who like to fix pins on critical maps will listen to Blech’s slowish and rich recording of the Rienzi overture and see that he falls somewhere between Felix Weingartner and Max Fiedler in conductorial style, which is to say that while Blech and Weingartner share a taste for not bearing down too hard on the orchestral keyboard, the super-light product of the professorial Felix has given way in Blech to a bigger-boned and more theatrical (in the best sense) style — and Fiedler would be much more likely than Weingartner to approve Blech’s trademark accelerandi.

[Below: Blech’s Polydor recording of overture from Wagner’s “Rienzi”; resized image of the record label.]


Other Blech gems from Weimar Republic days: a recording of Smetana’s Moldau highlighted by an artful dawdle in the main tune that expands deliciously as said aquatic tune flows into a trio of cadential chords (this is surely the Moldau river viewed from a Prague coffee house); an exceptionally fast and enchanting overture to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro; a minuet from the Brahms D major Serenade plaintive with tick-tocking echoes of Mendelssohn while it gives off a balletic foretaste of Tchaikovsky as well.

And then there’s Blech’s fascinating London Symphony recording of Schubert’s C major Symphony with his exquisite dynamic tampering in the first eight bars. The music is the famous bit for the horns, very lyrical horns that come on like some mysterious sage from your favorite lost horizon, especially when conductors err poetically on the slow side of Schubert’s prescribed andante, as they frequently do.

Blech casts the third measure as an echo of the second by switching from the score’s piano to pp, then he repeats the same device in the fifth and sixth bars, trailing off therereafter rather than simply shifting to the score’s pianissimo. One likes to think this inspiration came to Blech out of a Dahlem blue. Of course he may have been thinking ahead to Schubert’s fortissimo-answered-by-a-piano in the much less intimate measures 29-30 and offering a kind of lowkey preview.

Blech’s early century gig at the German Opera in Prague might give a clue to his fond handling of Smetana’s Moldau, the river’s a few blocks across downtown. At all events Blech from 1906 spent the bulk of his career in the less aquatically blessed Berlin, thirty seasons more or less in two grand terms at the Staatsoper unter den Linden where Daniel Barenboim presides today.

Blech’s prestige was so great he managed as a Jew to stay on the job four years into the Nazi era. Then he moved to Riga and Stockholm, returning swallow-like after the war for more Berlin innings, this time at the Deutsche Oper Charlottenberg where Donald Runnicles is now the musical chief.

One can read about the clever-eyed, ultra-efficient Blech in the soprano Frida Leider’s Playing My Part. With him, she says, you knew the tempos established in rehearsal would be followed in performance — otherwise those accelerations would, I suspect, have been quite a surprise sometimes.

One had to beware of repeating a mistake too many times though, because Blech would send a Teacher’s note to your dressing room between acts. But when you weren’t feeling well, and had to get through a performance, he would do everything possible from the pit to assure you a safe and unexhausted landing.

And sometimes at a party he played four hand piano with his colleague Erich Kleiber for dancing . . .

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You can read about more oldtime conductors in Arthur’s e-book, More Than the Notes, The Conducting of Toscanini, Furtwaengler, Stokowski and Friends, available at morethanthenotes dot com, with more than four hours of sound clips.