Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Concerto in A major BWV 1055 [13:38]
Concerto in G minor BWV 1058 [13:36]
Concerto in D major BWV 1054 (1740) [16:42]
Concerto in E major BWV 1053 [19:19]
Concerto in F minor BWV 1056 (1742) [10:07]
Nick van Bloss (piano)
English Chamber Orchestra/David Parry
rec. 18-20 July 2008, Henry Wood Hall, London
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6141 [73:22]
 
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 experience.
 
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.
 
Dominy Clements

Brilliant stuff, but some strings are more equal than others.