The May/June 2011 issue of International Piano, a fascinating British publication to which I subscribe, has an article by Jessica Duchen titled "Keys of Life" about the British musician Nick van Bloss, whose first recording, of Bach's Goldberg Variations, was recently released. What you would not know from the packaging of the CD or the material in the booklet, and certainly would not guess from listening to the gorgeous recording, is the fantastic "back-story" to this effort, which is undoubtedly in line with Mr. Van Bloss's determination to have his work judged on its own merits.
But it was this fantastic back-story that led me to buy the recording in the first place, as my collection is bursting with "Goldbergs" (both on piano and harpsichord) and I would have little need to acquire yet another unless my interest was powerfully engaged. It seems that Van Bloss, a child prodigy at the piano, suffers from Tourette's syndrome, and has since early childhood. The only time when he is not afflicted with the sharp, disruptive twitching characteristic of this disorder is when he is playing the piano! He finds that the intense concentration of performing music suspends, at least temporarily, those effects.
Van Bloss showed early talent, studied at the Royal College of Music, and made a success of early competition efforts, but found the stresses so overwhelming that he walked away from what looked to be developing into a possible virtuoso performance career. He spent 15 years away from the keyboard, moved to Europe to be with a partner (gender not specified in the article), and wrote a memoir, titled Busy Body, about living with Tourette's (published in 2006), but only gradually eased his way back into playing the piano again, becoming an interview subject for Oliver Sacks in connection with his book Musicophilia, and also one of the subjects of a documentary film, Mad but Glad, about the link between various disorders and music. The result was many offers for him to play concerts, which he did not feel able to do, having been away from the piano so long and fearing the stress of public performance, but he thought he might be able to make records. Sitting with a record producer, Michael Haas, discussing possible projects in 2008, he thought of the Goldberg Variations, which he had never played but had always loved to hear. Amazingly, given the results, he worked up the piece in less than a month in order to take advantage of the recording opportunity.
Given that back-story, how could I resist acquiring the recording? What is more amazing, I was not let down by the recording in any way. It is a totally engaging, technically immaculate, very well-recorded account of the Goldbergs. Indeed, to hear this and know that the pianist — although very well acquainted with the piece as a listener had not played the work until just weeks before the recording sessions — is to be startled and even more impressed.
Shortly after making this recording, van Bloss returned to the concert stage in 2009, performing concerti by Bach and Beethoven (the Emperor) with the English Chamber Orchestra to excellent reviews. He has continued with a limited range of concert engagements, has recorded a CD of Bach keyboard concerti with David Parry and the English Chamber Orchestra that is due for release shortly, and hopes to record the Beethoven concerti.
What is most important to say about the Goldberg Variations recording is that this is not some sort of stunt. It is an excellent rendition of one of the most frequently recorded pieces in the keyboard literature over the past few decades, that can stand on its own as a solid artistic achievement. I eagerly await the concerti….