Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations BWV 988 (1741)
Nick van Bloss (piano)
rec. Henry Wood Hall, London, 6-8 June 2008
NIMBUS NI 6136 [64:32]
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 of wallowing.
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 Angela 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.
One to lift the spirits.