As can be seen from the success of the film, “The King’s Speech”,
we are fascinated by an individual’s ability to overcome the
torment of a disability which disrupts normal communication.
Let alone it being an obstacle to success and acceptance in
a career with a high public profile. Nick van Bloss has been
absent from the stage since 1994, and this recording of the
Goldberg Variations is both his debut release and marks
a return to professional musicianship.
The booklet notes are in part the transcription of a conversation
between James Jolly and Nick van Bloss. We are treated to a
good deal of background information to the pianist’s approach.
Enthralled by Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the work and with
the music working away at his subconscious for years, Van Bloss
had in fact never played the Goldberg Variations, and
its choice for a first recording was “kind of spontaneous”.
Having made the decision, he developed his own interpretation
within a few weeks, considering the music away from the piano
as much as dealing with the high technical demands of the piece.
Van Bloss sees Bach as a deeply romantic composer, and the imagination
of the musician the essential ingredient which has to bring
his notes to life, responding to Bach’s emotions. He also stresses
the need “to consider the listener’s experience ... It has to
be about enjoyment! It has to be a two-way street.” This is
not to say he over-eggs the pudding at crucial moments. The
gorgeous Variation 21, Canone alla Settima which for
me is a kind of golden-section milestone of the work, is taken
with disarming simplicity and charm, carrying its expressive
weight lightly but effectively. The same goes for the final
Quodlibet, which has a fine singing quality with no sense
Beautifully recorded, this is rather a special Goldberg Variations.
I know the market is somewhat awash with choice in this field
at the moment, but in this case my spirits perked up as soon
as the piece started. Nick van Bloss’s performance is like greeting
an old friend, but one who has been on a long and exotic holiday.
You recognise your long-term companion and take comfort in their
familiar mannerisms and turns of phrase, their sense of humour
and the little surprises which you know so well but which never
cease to amuse. Gilded with an extra layer of experiences however;
full of animation and fascinating stories, this re-acquaintance
takes you on a pleasant journey of re-discovery. You find yourself
full of questions and impatient to hear what will come next;
how the story will unfold, and how certain moments will be expressed,
or – without trepidation – how certain challenges will be dealt
with. Van Bloss’s performance is pianistic and ‘romantic’ without
being sentimental. He will throw in the occasional extra octave
in the bass to emphasis a harmonic point or set up a little
bit of rhythmic reinforcement, but these tricks are used very
sparingly and there is no heavy ‘Busonification’ of this Bach.
Van Bloss sees the piece very much as a ‘road-map’ rather than
a set of individual pieces, but the character of each variation
is clearly defined, and Bach’s toying with different musical
styles comes through with alert observation. His ornamentation
is a joy: restrained and tasteful, it brings life and a sense
of spontaneity rather than making musical or technical points.
The comparison with Glenn Gould is inevitable, but aside from
a similar vibe in terms of attention to detail, Nick van Bloss
proves to be his own man. None of his variations are head-over-heels
fast or rushed sounding, though Variation 26 and others
requiring the necessary pace are full of zip and energy. Despite
Gould’s renowned discovery of ‘slowness’ he manages to out-slow
him in Variation 25 by about half a minute. None of the
tempi are inappropriate in my opinion however, and the sense
of natural flow between variations serves to heighten that sense
of an ongoing narrative which is essential for any good set
of Goldberg Variations. The feeling of arrival, with
the return of the Aria just that bit more expansive and
generous, is gentle and immensely satisfying.
Pinned to the ground and forced to make a choice, my current
all-time favourite piano version of this work remains that of
Hewitt on Hyperion. At 78:30 for a total timing her performance
is something more of an all-evening investment as far as listening
experiences go, but her journey takes me further than any other
I could name at the moment. This is not to take away anything
from Nick Bloss’s achievement though, and his superb recording
should be a very, very serious consideration indeed for any
fan of the Goldberg Variations.
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