If this were a newspaper or magazine story the headline over it 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 by at least a couple of overtures and a full act of Aida were, I suppose, less predictable. 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 sixth 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. In the chorus scene that follows, the messenger having ignited war fever, Verdi’s accented and increasingly frequent calls for “Guerra, Guerra!” are punctuated with similarly accented eighth note chords that Blech delivers with thumping Take That! intensity.

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 when Blech was 81: this one is with the radio orchestra based in the “American Sector.” The performances are impressive. Especially in the earlier one (the ’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. Blech faces the challenge with a wide Fiedleresque range of tempo (wider even than Verdi’s) 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 (in the bad old days of “78” a side break inevitably followed) and there’s another mad dash of the most artistic sort on the doorstep of the mighty chorale about halfway 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 Solti at Covent Garden. Incidentally the sub-clarinet arpeggios are marked leggero.

Another “live” Blech experience is the challenged chunks of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger salvaged by some mad professor of a recording editor from the Berlin Staatsoper’s 1928 performance celebrating the 115th anniversary of Wagner’s birth. Abrupt discontinuances aside, there’s much here to show Blech the supple and affectionate Wagnerian in action: the devout, meditative first act chorale, the nocturnal illumination of Sachs’ rapt monologue 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 Tannhaeuser overture becomes almost frantic with passion, the duet of first stand violins from measure 204 positively windswept: I see the music flying into space as a pair of mustachioed and gold watch-chained Berliners in crew cuts grasp their fiddles for dear life.

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 so to speak 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 of Blech’s trademark accelerandi.

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 acquatic tune flows into a trio of cadential chords (this is surely the Moldau 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. 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 thereafter 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 ff-answered-by-p in the much less intimate measures 29-30 and offering a kind of low-key preview.

In the succeeding allegro ma non troppo Blech has a ball scooting off on one of his accelerandi in the second subject, sending the trombones’ majestic scene into an interesting symphonic tizzy. Could it be that Blech, a great fan of Gustav Mahler’s conducting, was influenced by this gramophonically undocumented figure in his C major interpretation? A Hamburg performance of the Schubert by Mahler in 1894 caused one critic – but this was the pedantic Josef Sittard – to rap it as “far-fetched and tormented,” with “tempo changes nervous and unnatural.” Equal time must be given to the critic Carl Armbrust who saluted Mahler on his arrival in Hamburg as a musician whose conducting, like Wagner’s, combined freedom of tempo with complete rhythmic control and an absence of arbitrary fluctuations. De gustibus as usual.

Blech’s early twentieth 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 spent the bulk of his career in the less aquatically blessed Berlin, thirty seasons more or less in two grand terms at the Staatsoper where his prestige was so great he managed as a Jew to stay on the job four years into the Nazi era. It can’t have been too comfortable. Then he moved to Riga and Stockholm, returning after the war for more Berlin innings, this time at the Deutsche Opera west of where the Wall would rise. 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. One had to beware of repeating a mistake too many times though, because Blech would send a 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 Erich Kleiber for dancing . . .