Nick van Bloss returned to the recording studio in 2008 after a long absence and began what is projected as a long-term relationship with the Alliance arm of Nimbus Records. Rather than easing himself into the journey with a few gentle foothills, van Bloss has gone straight for the peaks. A well-received recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations started it off, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations are in the plan and here we have Chopin’s rich and complex B minor sonata and that cornucopia of pianistic riches, the Preludes.
As I said in a recent review of Samson François’s Chopin set on Erato
, Chopin is as much a tone poet of the piano as Liszt and Smetana are of the orchestra. You can hear this in the B minor sonata where the power and narrative drive of the Ballades are very much in evidence. Van Bloss ideally clarifies the denser passages of the first subject. Also the transition to the nocturne-like second subject is managed naturally. With Chopin, it seems that a nocturne is never far away; van Bloss’s cantabile in the main theme of the third movement is suitably operatic. The sostenuto
passage that follows is characterised in the manner of a ballade with Chopin’s beloved cello putting in an appearance. The pianist catches the propulsive echoes of Alkan in the galloping rhythms of the finale, and provides a rich sound in the triumphant final bars.
“He saw himself drowned in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might - and he was right to - against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds."
If one is not fixated on no. 15 as the
‘Raindrop’ prelude, there are a number of candidates for the nickname. Chopin denied all of them. However appealing the idea of setting a literary programme to the Preludes in whole or in part (or to other of Chopin’s works with a strong narrative drive, such as the Ballades), it is clear from George Sand’s account from their stay in Majorca that the composer’s mind simply did not work like that. The interpreter of his works must paint a multi-coloured picture, characterising each piece in purely musical terms, and make sense of it as a whole.
To some extent, the notion of the Preludes as a holistic set is fairly modern; there is no evidence of complete performances in Chopin’s lifetime. Nevertheless, they are carefully sequenced, not only by key but also in terms of melodic connection and contrasting character. Having easily reproducible recorded sets at our disposal makes a complete performance the norm; even when an individual piece is played, say as an encore, it is natural to ‘pre-hear’ the opening bars of the next in the set.
With so many performances now available on disc, I still look forward with keen anticipation to the latest interpretation, as I did to Nick van Bloss’s account. I was not disappointed. He reveals himself as the complete Chopin interpreter by meeting all the multifarious pianistic challenges embodied in these extraordinarily diverse ‘miniatures’ - in length but not in content.
Van Bloss points up the contrasts admirably; for example he paints a suitably monochrome picture for no. 14, a close relation of the finale of the B flat minor sonata, and then brings out the nocturne-like flavour of its ballade-like successor, telling far more of a story than the ‘raindrop’ appellation would imply. Nos. 11 and 12, another contrasted pairing (‘Prelude and Toccata’?) is similarly well-handled.
In van Bloss’s hands the slower numbers are distinguished by their simplicity and naturalness. Rubato is not exaggerated in the strange Mussorgsky-like bareness of no. 2. He does not make a meal of the repeated descending minor thirds of no. 4, allowing the melancholy to speak for itself. Virtuosity is available when required without drawing attention to itself; for example, in no. 8, the melody is heard clearly within the busy but transparent texture, a tribute to excellent pedalling.
Van Bloss proves himself as much a master of controlled rage as gentle lyricism as a truly appassionato
account of the D minor prelude closes this magnificent performance of the Preludes. Coupled with a strong account of the B minor sonata, it takes its place among the most recommendable.