I am still a huge fan of Nick van Bloss’s superb recording of
the Goldberg Variations (see review),
so needed no persuasion to add this set of five of Bach’s Keyboard
Concertos to the horizons of my listening experience. To
start with, it has to be said that these are very fine performances
and ones which I’ve very much enjoyed hearing. In general the
overall feel is less vibrant and energetic as Ramin Bahrami’s
Leipzig recording from Decca (see review),
which frequently has faster tempi and tighter timings as a result.
These cover BWV 1052-56, so we have the G minor BWV
1058 but unfortunately not the superb D minor BWV 1052.
I’ve also been listening to Alexandre Tharaud on Virgin
Classics, but with strings using period bows this is an entirely
different prospect. The decision with Nick van Bloss and the
excellent English Chamber Orchestra has been to allow the warmth
of string tone you can achieve with vibrato, and this paired
with the already rich sound of a modern grand piano is logical
and sensible. This is not to say that the accompaniments sound
heavy and old-fashioned, and indeed there is a deal of what
might be termed ‘period’ in the sensitivity of the phrasing.
Van Bloss admits to throwing an extra octave in the bass here
and there, using a certain amount of pedal, and seeking something
with plenty of “emotional ‘power’ in the music.” This does result
in one or two Stokowski moments, 5:10 into the Andante of
the Concerto in G minor BWV 1058 for instance, so, although
if you’ve been listening to Bach on piano you’ve been caught
out already: purists beware.
These aspects of character in the performances come through
strongly, and van Bloss’s unfussy approach to ornamentation
and excellent technique are all attractive elements. Tempi are
often a little slower than what we might have become used to
in recent years, but one senses that this is a way of giving
the music space to breathe, and there are few cases in which
one finds it harder to become accustomed to what is after all
an admirable consistency of approach. The only movement which
I feel does sound rather fusty and laboured is the opening Allegro
moderato from the final Concerto in F minor BWV 1056.
This is a good half minute longer than most other recent versions
I’ve heard, which is a fair lump of time in a movement which
is only 3 minutes altogether: or 3:33 from van Bloss.
There is plenty of energy elsewhere, but few points at which
I feel the music really sparkles. The team here take their Bach
very seriously indeed, and the sense is that it is perhaps a
little too serious to really take off in the same way as Bahrami/Chailly.
This is a question of taste of course, and I accept any arguments
in opposition like the good Libran I am. Where I am most troubled
is in the balance between orchestra and soloist. This is to
a certain extent part of the ethos of the recording, the decision
having been made no to emulate a harpsichord or “keep the dynamic
range deliberately rather small.” I often bang on about this
kind of point so maybe there is something wrong with me, but
to my mind the balance of piano against the orchestra is simply
too high. I first played this through on a cheap MP3 player
with plug-in earphones, and I imagined myself having to write
comments to the effect that the soloist seemed incapable of
playing softly, but on arriving home and plugging into the ‘very
hi-fi’ I found that in fact there’s nothing wrong with van Bloss’s
dynamics, it’s just that the strings are often almost inaudible
behind the piano sound. The ECO strings play lightly as is appropriate,
but just taking the first track, the Allegro from the
Concerto in A major BWV 1055 and it’s hard to find much
actual body in the sound of the strings, so subsumed are they
by the piano. You can hear some texture popping over the top,
but the results are rather weedy and ineffective, and we all
know the English Chamber Orchestra has more to give that this.
The second movement Larghetto emphasises this point,
with the strings opening proceedings, and then being pretty
much washed away by the piano’s simplest of single line melodies.
I really didn’t want to be unfair on this point, so I even asked
the opinion of another reviewer for whom this release is in
the pipeline, and he confirmed my perceptions.
A grand piano will always be audible against a string orchestra.
There’s no need to roll it to the front of the soundstage and
pump it up to quite this extent. The ear can become accustomed
to this balance if the mind is determined to be sympathetic,
but if you are listening for the strings you have to use your
imagination for at least some, I would say much of the time.
Take the last movement of BWV 1058 and there are swathes
of passages where the upper strings are meant to take the lead,
but struggle to make any impact at all. Points at which the
soloist and orchestra are meant to sound as equals are lost,
and the full ‘roundness’ and sense of a complete image is one
I’m continually having to search for. This for me is the reason
this recording doesn’t ‘gel’ and take off as a truly satisfying
All of this said, I don’t want to be too ‘down’ on this release.
As I’ve mentioned before, these are fine performances, and if
they don’t smack you in the face at first hearing then they
are all the stronger for getting under your skin and developing
more in a more gradual and insinuating manner. This is Nick
van Bloss’s CD after all, and the piano playing is beautifully
even, with Bach expressed as a master whose work is a relevant
and living process filled with spontaneous and kinetic potential.
His sensitivity in those special movements, such as the Adagio
e piano sempre of BWV 1054, is exquisite, and the
appeal of his colour and articulation is unassailable. Van Bloss
led these performances from the keyboard, and the sense of unity
between solo and accompaniment is palpable. The word ‘accompaniment’
is however operative, and I just wish the ECO had been given
a little more oomph in the mix.