Congratulations on your new recording of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. The new album is the latest in a line of recordings in which you present some of the greatest and most challenging works ever written for the piano. Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata also features on the record… what inspired you to record these works?
The most important thing for me, in deciding what to record, is to ask myself the question, ‘Do I have anything new, or unique, to say’. There’s a trend amongst pianists simply to record what might appeal to the public – often glittering, virtuosic works intended to impress, or else very standard and well-known works, which make for an easy sell. Personally, I need to record (and perform) only works that really challenge me intellectually as well as pianistically. For example, I always thought that the Diabelli Variations was probably a dull old work! I thought there must have been a reason why it is somewhat neglected. But, on studying the score, I found it to be such a magnificent, but hugely difficult, cerebral work, that it appealed to me on so many levels. I always want to try and create something fresh and absolutely true to my musical personality. There’s no point in recording something that actually sounds just like another pianist’s recording! That’s a trap so many pianists seem to fall in to. Take the Appassionata – it’s been recorded so many times, and so many of those recordings ape each other. I genuinely think my performance is slightly different: I don’t emphasize the angst and furious passion that the title would suggest. I see it as a mid-period Sonata in F minor – a very effective one, but still a Classical work, one that needs to push forward and keep going, and not linger on pent-up emotions.
You have performed in the United States, UK, Japan, Sweden and Austria, in recitals, concertos and performances. Does audience appreciation and knowledge of classical music differ in these countries? If so, how and why?
That’s such a brilliant question! I really think that audiences do differ by country in so many ways. The UK audiences are often very knowledgeable, but almost jaded in their outlook, so they tend not to be able to bring themselves to ‘gush’ in any way. US audiences do allow themselves to gush – they seem more open to embracing new performers and interpretations and, when performing, I feel them ‘with me’ every step of the way. Austrian audiences are scary! They often know the music SO well, have heard it all a thousand times, and often don’t expect to be impressed. So, when one is able to ‘crack’ them, and impart a performance they really ‘get’, it’s an incredibly gratifying experience.
What motivates you to play piano?
And that’s a difficult question! So many things, is the answer. But, need is the one closest to the truth. If I don’t play, then I literally crave the piano, so it’s like an addiction, albeit a wonderful one! Of course, there’s always the concert or recording schedule to consider, although, I’m not one to sit for eight or ten hours working at the piano in any case. I practiced SO much when I was younger, familiarizing myself with reams of the repertoire, that I now limit really focused work to an absolute maximum of four hours a day. Overall, though, the piano is like being in a very consuming and wonderfully needy relationship – it has a grip on me and, thankfully, it won’t let go.
You have also released three other highly acclaimed albums with Nimbus Records: Bach’s Goldberg Variations (2011), Bach’s Keyboard Concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra (2011) and Chopin’s 3rd Sonata and 24 Preludes (2013). Why develop this long-term relationship with Nimbus Records?
The Goldberg Variations was a work I first encountered when I was 12 and had only been playing the piano for a year. I absolutely fell in love with it, bought the score, and tried (in vain) to play some of it. I had a kind of love affair with it. But then I left it for decades – I knew it was a mammoth and difficult work, and I never actually imagined I’d learn and play it. So, when I did come to record it, it was like joining a dear, old friend on a life journey. It’s such a monument of a work! The Keyboard Concertos have a similar story to the Goldberg with me – I’d always had the scores and adored tinkling through them, so when the opportunity to record them came along I was in heaven. Chopin was, for me, a very odd choice, and, to some degree, a strategic one. If I had recorded more Bach, I’d have been typecast. If I’d moved to Beethoven or Mozart, I might have risked being labeled a pianist who avoids Romantic music. So, I had to find what I considered the most challenging (for me) Chopin, in works that I genuinely felt would suit my style and ethos. I believe Chopin is a master of direct emotion and not necessarily the composer of wishy-washy played Nocturnes! But again, with all of the above recordings, I absolutely had to choose works that I felt I could impart me on.
You retired from playing completely for 15 years. Why?
It was a self-imposed break from playing, and one from which I never thought I’d return. During those years I hardly ever touched a piano, although I constantly heard and ‘played’ music in my head. It was an incredibly enriching time, though. I made myself familiar with so much other music, but primarily the operatic repertoire. I was constantly ‘learning’ new operas, and then travelling (mostly abroad) to hear them performed. I also wrote a memoir of my life, which was a complete change in discipline, in the sense that writing engages the mind in such a different way to a piano-trained one. I also lived abroad for many of the retirement years. And, all said and done, I have to say that everything I did and experienced has really made me ‘gel’ as a pianist now I’m back at the keys. Life experience brings the greatest of all understanding and wisdom.
Your musical training began as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, you then entered the Royal College of Music at the age of 15 as a junior, attending full time from the age of 17, studying with Yonty Solomon. How did your early music education shape you as a pianist and musician? Did any tutors/professors create a lasting impact on you and why?
I think my choral training at Westminster Abbey was invaluable in that it gave me a real appreciation of vocal line – on which, let’s face it, all music is based.
I still vividly remember and musically feel those days of choral training, and I utilize things I learnt. Studying with Yonty Solomon was life changing: apart from being a superb pianist, he was literally bursting with creativity and good taste, and he inspired me to really explore and, most importantly for any pianist, listen.
I was young and almost bubbling-over with the love of music. I wanted to play everything. Yonty reigned me in and made me focus on finesse and the ability of making performances work for audiences. As I sit at the piano working now, I still often imagine Yonty sitting beside me, and almost hear him commenting, enthusing and suggesting. Teachers like that are to be cherished.
Which living pianists inspire you and why?
Very few. Not because I don’t admire them, I do, but because I genuinely believe that inspiration comes from one’s own musical and life journey. Plus, I happily admit that I rarely listen to other pianists – other interpretations can corrupt one’s own vision of works. Plus, I think the days of grand-old pianism have all but vanished. For that I blame the (mainly European) industry for promoting a new face every week.
Do you have any musical regrets? Would you change anything if you could go back in time and do so?
In some ways I wish I’d been born forty years earlier! These days, the music industry has lost sight of what audiences want, so it’s no wonder audience numbers are declining. The industry focuses on the young; something I feel is a huge mistake. Audiences of the past wanted seasoned, regular faces on the stage, not the latest prizewinner who will be unheard of in a few years time and replaced by yet another. Of course there is room for younger players, but it’s an insult to performers past and present for us to be told that these youngsters are the greatest things since sliced bread!
Do you think there’s too much pressure on young aspiring pianists today? How difficult is breaking into the classical music scene?
The pressure comes from so many pianists wanting careers and so few being able to break through to make their dream a reality. So, competitions exist, thus putting huge and anti-musical pressure on those who simply want to play. If we imagine how many pianists are graduating each year, internationally, from good music schools, it must run into thousands. And a huge number of them will be really good players. How on earth can they all be accommodated in the profession? It’s mind blowing.
Do you have advice for young aspiring concert pianists who wish to develop successful careers as musicians?
My advice would be: only pursue this if you absolutely can’t live without it. I hope that doesn’t sound cynical. I just think it’s such a hard career to break in to, and so much heart-break would be avoided if pianists just looked at the state of the industry and decided if they really want to go down a path that is as dodgy as playing Russian Roulette.
What is the biggest challenge that you have overcome as a pianist?
The biggest challenge for me was deciding to make a ‘comeback’ after so many years away from the piano. I had no idea if I would be recognized or appreciated in any way, or even if I’d be taken seriously. It was with a lot of support and a huge leap of faith that I was able to put myself into the public arena and wait for judgment, as it were. Luckily, it worked out well. But it so easily could have been the comeback that never was!
Nick’s latest album Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations is out now on Nimbus Records.
Pizzicato gives Supersonic Award for Diabelli and Appassionata
“How lucky are we to hear such a personal and refreshing performance of both the Diabelli Variations and the Appassionata. Nick van Bloss’s playing is fluid, extremely transparent, non-sentimental, yet always gripping by its rhythmic force.”