Pianist Nick van Bloss offers probing rendition of epic Beethoven

By Lawrence Budmen

Nick van BLoss performed Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" Monday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

Nick van Bloss performed Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” Monday night at the Miami International Piano Festival.

Nick van Bloss made his South Florida debut at the Miami International Piano Festival in 2014, giving a memorable performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. On Monday night the British pianist returned for the festival’s Master Series at the Broward Center’s Amaturo Theater with another large scale keyboard landmark–Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations.

In 1819 Austrian music publisher Anton Diabelli sent a waltz of his own creation to a series of composers, asking each to write a variation on the theme for a future collaborative publication. While such luminaries as Schubert, Czerny and Hummel responded, Beethoven did not. Instead he utilized the theme for a grandiose set of 30 variations which Diabelli published in 1824.

This score represents Beethoven at the height of his powers in a manner that is nothing less than transformative. Diabelli’s waltz melody is trite at best but Beethoven turns this simple material into a profound musical statement. As the work progresses, the harmonic and melodic palette becomes ever more ambitious with the slower sections deeply ruminative. The score is also a literal minefield for the pianist that tests every facet of the artist’s technique and the work’s fifty-minute length also requires immense stamina. While recordings of the Diabelli Variations have proliferated, concert performances remain a rarity.

One can hardly imagine van Bloss playing the power-pounding bravura concertos of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. To be sure he has the technical arsenal to play those scores or pretty much anything else in the standard repertoire of a traveling virtuoso. Van Bloss’s artistic personality and musicianship, however, places a premium on refinement, subtlety and intellectually probing interpretations and the Beethoven and Bach scores he assayed Monday night were a perfect fit.

Van Bloss took the stage, bowing quickly, and immediately launched into Diabelli’s theme at a driving pace. He displayed a full variety of dynamics and, even when playing at top volume or speed, his sound was never harsh. The initial Marcia maestoso variation was taut and strongly accented, giving the melody greater nobility. Employing supple rubato, he captured the vigor of the Viennese dance in Variation V. In the grand fugal variation, van Bloss’s playing was  clean with the inner voicing wonderfully transparent, all while maintaining a propulsive tempo. He astutely conveyed impish wit in a technically stunning traversal of the scherzo like 9th variation.

The pianist’s performance was at its peak in the three slow variations. Here van Bloss probed the depths of emotion beneath the notes. Playing with measured restraint and tonal weight, he drew a deep sound from the Steinway. There was a sense of elongated song, like an instrumental lieder. The Largo of the penultimate variation was especially moving with van Bloss  bringing out the music’s darkness.

The quotation of Leporello’s opening solo from Mozart’s Don Giovanni was tossed off with verve and there was plenty of rhythmic bounce and vivacity throughout the performance. Van Bloss strikingly balanced Mozartean lightness and weighted intensity in a technically accomplished reading.

In Bach’s Partita No. 2 in C minor, van Bloss kept the instrument’s sound level within the stylistic conventions of the Baroque era. His rhythms were aptly buoyant for Bach’s court dances. In the grand introduction, he made astute use of the pedal to add color and variety to his alternately spacious and high energy reading.

Period instrument specialists may not have approved of van Bloss’ variations of tempo and dynamics but there was a sense of rightness about his interpretive choices. In the Sarabande, Van Bloss adopted a stately pace without undue slowness. The Rondeau was lithe and flowing and, in the final Capriccio, contrapuntal lines were rendered with finesse. There was nothing pedantic about van Bloss’ exhilarating reading.

The Miami International Piano Festival Master’s Series concludes 7: 45 p.m. Tuesday at the Broward Center Amaturo Theater in Ft. Lauderdale with violist Gary Levinson and pianist Walter Ponce playing sonatas by Beethoven, Bach and Brahms. miamipianofest.com

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Tue Mar 1, 2016
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