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Leo Blech (1871 - 1958)


Leo Blech gave up a proposed career in business to enrol at the Berlin High School for Music, where he studied composition, firstly with Woldemar Bargiel, then with Engelbert Humperdinck, and piano with Ernst Rudorff. In 1893 he returned to Aachen and on the recommendation of Richard Strauss made his debut as the conductor of the city’s Municipal Theatre, remaining in this post until 1899 while continuing to study composition with Humperdinck in Munich during the summers. Henceforth Blech was to hold a succession of posts at major European opera houses, predominantly in Berlin. Between 1899 and 1906 he also conducted at the German Theatre in Prague. In 1906 he took up the appointment of first conductor at the Royal Opera in Berlin, where Richard Strauss was currently chief conductor, succeeding Strauss in this position in 1918. In 1923 he left this theatre (by which time it had been renamed the Berlin State Opera) to become chief conductor of the German Opera House (Deutsches Opernhaus) in Berlin, but stayed there only for a year, moving to the Berlin Volksoper in 1924, and then on to the Vienna Volksoper in 1925; in 1926 he returned to the Berlin State Opera as first conductor. Erich Kleiber was at this time the company’s chief conductor. Between 1924 and 1929 Blech also held the post of conductor of the .

Although Jewish, Blech remained active as a conductor in Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich, largely through the intervention of Hermann Göring and because of his great personal popularity. However in 1937 he was guest-conducting in Riga, Latvia, when he was advised not to return to Germany for his personal safety. He therefore stayed in Riga as conductor of the Riga Opera until 1941, when the Baltic States were occupied by Germany, and then moved to Stockholm, in Sweden, where he had also previously guest-conducted. He secured a position as conductor at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, staying until 1949, when he returned to Berlin, and took up the post of chief conductor at the Municipal Opera (Städtische Oper), remaining there until his retirement in 1954. He died in 1958.

Although not the most brilliant of the numerous conductors of stature who worked in Berlin between the two world wars, Blech was an excellent interpreter, especially of the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Indeed Strauss specifically requested that he lead the first performance in Berlin of his opera Elektra. Blech was himself an accomplished composer, writing symphonies, orchestral works, songs and piano music, as well as four operas and two operettas. His opera Versiegelt was produced firstly in Hamburg in 1908 and then in New York. Blech was admired for the clarity of texture that he obtained from his orchestra as a conductor and for his skills as an accompanist of singers. Melchior once commented, ‘He knew his singers’ strengths and weaknesses. When one was singing in the worst part of one’s register, the orchestra played loudly, but when one was at one’s best, the orchestra was soft.’

Blech was very active as a recording conductor throughout the acoustic and electrical years of 78rpm wax recording. He recorded a large repertoire, principally with the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera, the Berlin Staatskapelle, for HMV. This included symphonies by Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, as well as many of the shorter pieces and accompaniments that were the staple of the classical recording industry during this period. Particularly notable were the excerpts from the operas of Wagner, where his conducting displayed an exciting dynamism that transcended the limitations of the recording media of the time. He also recorded the first complete performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 ‘Great C major’ with the London Symphony Orchestra, in 1927. During the late 1927–1928 season HMV recorded excerpts of Blech conducting live performances of Der Rosenkavalier, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and La Bohème at the Berlin State Opera. His most enduring recordings are probably the accompaniments that he directed with the Berlin Staatskapelle for Fritz Kreisler’s performances of the Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms violin concertos.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).

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