Discographic premieres for Leo Blech, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth

Leo Bléch (1871-1958) : Complete Works for Orchestra. Lieder with orchestra. Waldwanderung for orchestra op. 8 no. 1; Von den Englein, for female choir and orchestra; Trost in der Natur, barcarolle for orchestra op. 7 no. 3; Six Kinder Lieder for voice and small orchestra ; Wie ist doch die Erde so schön, op. 21 No. 8, for voice and orchestra; Sommernacht, for mixed choir and orchestra; Die Nonne, symphonic poem for orchestra op. 6. Sonja Gornik, soprano; Opernchor Aachen; Sinfonieorchester Aachen, conductor: Christopher Ward. Capriccio C5481.

Leo Bléch: The King of the Alps and the Misanthrope, opera in three acts. Ronan Collett (Astragalus), Hrólfur Saemundsson (Rappelkopf), Sonja Gornik (Marthe), Irina Popova (Sabine), Tilmann Unger (Hans), Anne-Aurore Cochet (Lieschen), Hyunhan Hwang (Habakuk), Pawel Lawreszuk (Veit Meinhardt) , Fanny Lustaud (Katharine), Anna Graf (Susel); Opernchor Aachen; Sinfonieorchestra Aachen, conductor: Christopher Ward. 2021. Instructions in German and English. Full text of the booklet in German, with English translation. 125.00. 2 CD Capriccio C5478.

It is quite logical that in 2021 the city of Aachen paid a double tribute to Leo Blech, conductor and composer who was born there one hundred and fifty years earlier, the fifth of six children of a Jewish family that made paintbrushes and hairbrushes. The young Leo very quickly showed a disposition for music, studied for two years at the Hochschule in Berlin, took private lessons with Humperdinck, the author of Hansel and Gretel and, back in Aix, composed his first opera, premiered the same year. Most of his career will be that of a conductor, first in his native town, as second Kapellmeister, before being called to Prague. His career will continue in Berlin, at the Royal Opera, from 1906, on the suggestion of Richard Strauss, and will last for thirty years; he conducted, became the institution’s general director of music from 1913 to 1923 and, after a brief stint in Vienna, returned there as conductor, at the same time as Erich Kleiber. He was forced into exile in 1937 following Nazi laws and settled in Riga. He would have, on the intervention of Hermann Goering who appreciated him, benefited from a diplomatic visa, thus escaping extermination, to go to Stockholm where he directed the opera until 1949. He will end his career in Berlin , at the State Opera.

This conductor, renowned for his dynamism, his clarity and his precision, has recorded for labels such as HMV, DG, Decca or Telefunken, in particular concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn with Fritz Kreisler, as well as the first engraving on disc of the Ninth by Schubert. You can find this conductor at Audite, Discophilia, Melodram, Jube, Koch or Naxos. But in the present case, it is the composer who holds our attention, thanks to Capriccio which offers two world premiere albums. Blech’s catalogue, concentrated essentially in his first forty years, consists of six operas, an operetta, a few symphonic and choral pages, melodies and chamber music.

The first album offers a complete symphonic pages and choral pieces with orchestra. Five of them are dated between 1897 and 1901, starting with the three symphonic poems. The Nun (1898) describes, based on an expressionist poem by Otto Julius Bierbaum (1865-1910), the pangs of a nun in search of freedom, between amorous attraction and acceptance of her fate. Great sensual impulses are supported by a subtle orchestration which evokes that of Humperdinck, Blech’s mentor, whose influence is clear in this period of continuous creativity, through a palette of nuanced colours. more intimate, Comfort in nature (1900) and Forest trip (1901) confirm the qualities of the instrumentation. The harp intervenes in the first symphonic poem with the effects of glissandos; evocations of birdsong and the tranquility of an evening are rendered with charm in the second, which Richard Strauss in Berlin and Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam will include in their concerts.

A somewhat ethereal atmosphere that is already found in the Summer night (1897), this time with mixed choir. Violins and harp (instrument favored by Blech) form an intense carpet for the voices, on a poem by Robert Reinick (1805-1852), the sung being almost spoken. The composer likes intimate atmospheres tinged with magic, as demonstrated by a superb About the Angels (1897): verses by Rudolf Löwenstein (1819-1891) encourage a child to place himself under the protection of these diaphanous beings so that they protect him and in the hope of one day becoming an angel himself. Blech wrote between 1913 and 1926 about fifty songs which met with success, some being translated into English. He orchestrated six Kinderlieder (date not known) for voice and small ensemble. The texts emanate from various poets, on simple themes, emotional, dreamy or nature-related. In 1952, Bernd Alois Zimmermann will undertake to orchestrate a seventh which, according to a text by Reinick -often requested by Blech- magnifies the beauty of the earth. It is the soprano Sonja Gornik who lends her fresh and clear voice to these seven melodies. Trained in Mainz and Graz, this sensitive singer distinguished herself in Verdi, Puccini, Beethoven or Wagner. She reveals herself here as the ideal interpreter of an unknown universe, served with conviction and fervor by the choirs of the Théâtre d’Aix-la-Chapelle. English conductor Christopher Ward, who was trained at Oxford and was assistant to Simon Rattle in Berlin and Kent Nagano in Munich, has been musical director of the Orchester Symphonique d’Aix since August 2018. He tunes the scores of Blech all the care they deserve, and underlines with the appropriate gesture a refined musical world that deserves the detour.

1669199830 636 Discographic premieres for Leo Blech on the occasion of theThe same team, choirs, orchestra and conductor (Sonja Gornik is also in the game), is called upon for the other production Capriccio, namely the opera in three acts of 1903 The King of the Alps and the Misanthrope. The libretto, written by the musicologist Richard Blatka (1868-1922), which will also be part of the adventure of three other lyrical scores by Blech, is inspired by that which the Viennese Ferdinand Raimund (1790-1836) had written for a Zauberspiel of romantic and comic style from 1828, bearing the same title, signed by the Austrian composer Wenzel Müller (1767-1835). We are around 1830, in an alpine place where the misanthrope Rappelkopf caused a climate of terror to reign in his family because of his tyrannical character. The King of the Alps, Astragalus, a positive spirit, will intervene and transform him into his brother-in-law. This will allow the misanthrope, by a return effect, to witness what his entourage undergoes. Everything will end well: Rappelkopf will realize the need to change. He will accept the union of his daughter Martha with his beloved Hans, as well as the happiness of his maid Lieschen with the servant Habakuk.

Blech’s first opera, Aglaja, dates from 1893. He would compose five others, one of which is lost, over the next ten years. Two others will see the light of day before 1910. The King of the Alps and the misanthrope (which Blech will modify to shorten it in 1916 under the sole title of Rappelkopf) confirms the musician’s ability for refined writing and instrumentation, with an assertive sense of lyricism, the use of leitmotifs, notably for Astragalus, well-balanced humor (amusing reminder of Funiculi, funicula) and an overall polyphony that emphasizes ensembles rather than specific tunes; some delightful songs furnish the action. The whole provides two hours of frank pleasure, with inspired orchestral preludes for each of the three acts (the horns are valiant in the initial opening), and an overall atmosphere which is not without evoking again the memory of the magic of Humperdinck, but also accents of Richard Strauss.

The absence of a French translation of the libretto (reproduced entirely in German and English) is detrimental to the detailed understanding of this unpublished production, which does not prevent us from appreciating the very successful duets and the well-balanced ensembles. The set is excellent, from which emerge Sonja Gornik in the mischievous role of Marthe, daughter of the misanthrope, the Icelandic baritone Hrólfur, homogeneous voice, as a domestic tyrant (impressive scene 7 of Act I), the English baritone Ronan Collett, which portrays a credible large-scale Astragalus. The other singers, who come from different national backgrounds, deserve praise for their investment. Praise to which we will associate the Aixois, choir and orchestra, and their conductor, who in two albums have become the reference for a Leo Blech who well deserved this rehabilitation. Note, as a bonus, the additional presence of two Military marches op. 23 from 1915, which the conductor/composer dedicated to the director of the royal theaters of Prussia, Count von Hülsen-Haeseler. These ten minutes are removed with the brilliance they claim. The recording was made in May 2021.

Symphonic and vocal works with orchestra

Sound: 8.5 Record: 9 Repertoire: 8.5 Interpretation: 9

Alpenkönig und Menschenfeind

Sound: 9 Record: 9 Repertoire: 8.5 Interpretation: 9

John Lacroix

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Discographic premieres for Leo Blech, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his birth

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