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Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Kreisleriana, Op.16 (1838) [34:25]
Études Symphoniques, Op.13 (1834-37) [36:56]
Nick van Bloss (piano)
rec. 3 October 2014 (Études) and 13-14 April 2015 (Kreisleriana), Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK.

I’ve been impressed by all of Nick van Bloss’s recordings, the latest of which was a superlative Diabelli Variations. Such is the nature of our little world that my positive words were received just as the recording of Kreisleriana was commencing at Wyastone Leys, so at least MWI can be credited with giving him “a great start to the day” on 13 April 2015 and, I hope, adding just a little extra zing to the recording. Schumann’s type of pianism always seemed likely to be suited to van Bloss’s inventive sensitivity, and so I only needed a little gentle persuasion to add this disc to my review list.

Van Bloss’s opening in Kreisleriana is emblematic of his approach throughout this programme. Brilliant technique and sublime musicianship is applied to these scores combined with an almost defiant will to avoid hamming things up and turning the music into a chocolate-box relic of a bygone age. Shaping of phrases and expression are of course both present, but there is little in the way of added and arguably artificial rubato within movements. This is a refreshingly straightforward approach which takes nothing away from an effective communication of Schumann’s voice, and indeed has a tendency to strip away that extra layer of interpretation which can at times get in the way of the piece.

There is no lack of drama in Kreisleriana, and the contrasts in the second movement Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch have just about everything. The intimacy here is heartfelt without being sentimental, and the central whirlwind, while like an entirely different piece, is also nicely in proportion and like the energy cell which makes the rest of the movement simmer with hidden passions. That sense of deep romantic desire while having to retain respectability in polite society is all over Nick van Bloss’s performance, in a work composed before Schumann was finally able to marry his Clara, but with “you and the thought of you” uppermost in his mind.

Recent recordings of Kreisleriana have included that by Imogen Cooper on the Chandos label (review), and comparison shows where different approaches can be equally valid. Cooper spends a little more time on those crucial Sehr langsam movements, portraying them with a more literary sense of reflection where van Bloss draws more on the vitality of that underlying flame which keeps everything afloat. A classic and desirable recording is that on Decca by Radu Lupu (review), and if you want something more explosive then Lupu’s opening Ausserst bewegt at around 2:21 to van Bloss’s 3:06 will give you the required kick in the pants. Lupu’s Schumann is painted with vivid colours and bold brushstrokes where van Bloss’s is more watercolour, but subtly shaded to create volume and space behind the notes – a one-to-one performance rather than the sort that has been transplanted from the concert hall into the recording studio.

The passions underlying the earlier Études Symphoniques derive from Schumann’s love for Ernestine von Fricken, a fellow piano pupil of Friedrich von Wieck, and initiating an artistic exchange of compositions between himself and her father, Baron von Fricken. Taking a free variation form, this sequence of movements is more classical in character than Kreisleriana and less of an invitation towards emotional complexity. This can also make the Études Symphoniques harder to make convincing, particularly in a recording where the more active participation of a live performance can help things along. Nick van Bloss again doesn’t pull the music around in perverse ways, keeping everything very much as a ‘symphonic’ whole while delivering plenty of the necessary contrast between movements. These are contrasts of character as well as in touch and mood, with something like the off march of Etude IV almost taking on the nature of a military caricature, the conjoined Etude V skipping away more like a wayward child with a flower between her teeth, disarming the pomp of what went before.

There are plenty of technical fireworks along the way, and this is as fine a display of pianism as you will find anywhere. When it came to finding a comparison for the Études Symphoniques I reached for that very fine recording on the BIS label by Freddy Kempf (review). Again, both approaches are equally valid, though van Bloss is a little more earthy than Kempf. Take the vocal exchange from female to male in the Variation II, taken in an elegantly adorned chamber with dainty cup of tea by Kempf, more a coquettish encounter in a leafy glade from van Bloss. That is not to say that this is a performance devoid of delicacy, far from it. That simple and transparent Variation IV is for example played with delightful poise, and contrasts of the eloquently lyrical and triumphantly heroic in the final two Etudes will tell you much of you need to know about what preceded them.

Dominy Clements



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