Leo Black obituary

Other lives: Distinguished producer for Radio 3

Leo Black, who has died aged 86, was a name to conjure with at Radio 3 when aspiring performers of classical music felt it a privilege to enter the hallowed portals of the BBC.

Britain’s smaller record labels had not yet emerged and broadcasting was the only way that most of us could find a national audience. Leo joined the BBC in 1960, where he worked for 28 years. He was one of a handful of all-powerful producers whose task it was to plan programmes, judiciously pairing artists with the repertoire that would suit them best.

Singers and pianists, particularly those of us in the younger generation, awaited Leo’s challenging suggestions with bated breath. His musical knowledge was all-embracing, and under his aegis the listening public was treated (among many other things) to broadcasts of little known Schubert songs by Janet Baker, Margaret Price and Heather Harper.

Leo’s specialist field was the German lied and many artists and performers sought his musical advice both in and out of the studio.

He was born in London, son of Phyllis (nee Beckett) and Charles Black (formerly Schwarz), who were both teachers. The family moved to Amersham, Buckinghamshire, during the second world war to avoid the bombing of London, and then to Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. Leo went to Cheltenham grammar school and then to Wadham College, Oxford, graduating with a first in music.

After a spell working at Universal Edition, both in London and Vienna, he joined the BBC and spent many happy years there with an amazing team of colleagues including the composer Robert Simpson and the brilliantly impossible writer and musician Hans Keller.

Redundancy in 1988 – radio was changing and becoming increasingly inimical to Leo’s meticulous way of thinking and working – led to a second career as a writer. In the 1970s, he had translated Schoenberg’s writings so well (for Faber’s Style and Idea, 1975) that the composer’s widow said that it “sounded like him”. He wrote indispensable books on Schubert, the BBC in the William Glock era, and the composer Edmund Rubbra, who had been Leo’s tutor at Oxford.

His hobby was table-tennis, which he played to a high level, becoming an umpire, a team manager and a skilled photographer of the sport. He also shared with his supportive wife, the cellist Felicity Vincent, a passion for their prizewinning Korat cats.

Leo had once been my employer at the BBC, but years later he became a truly kind friend, reading my book on Schubert’s songs from cover to cover despite his already failing eyesight and making helpful suggestions. He always spoke his mind, but he was at heart a profoundly humble man.

Felicity, whom he married in 1990, survives him.

Graham Johnson

The GuardianTramp

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