This is the second interview in my Classical Conversations Series and today British concert pianist, Nick van Bloss is in the spot light. Nick studied at the Royal College of Music with Yonty Solomon. He has played recitals, concertos and chamber music concerts in the UK and all around Europe.
Nick retired from the concert platform for many years making his comeback at Cadogan Hall in London playing a Bach Concerto and the Emperor Concerto (Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major Op.73) by Beethoven, for which he received great reviews. In 2010 he released a recording of the Goldberg Variations by Bach for Nimbus Records, and this was followed in 2011 by a recording of Bach’s keyboard Concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra (also released on Nimbus).
Nick suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and in 2007 he was the focus of a BBC Horizon documentary called Mad but Glad which explored this condition and the effects it has on musicians particularly. Nick wrote his autobiography, Busy Body, in 2006 which was published by Fusion Press.
And the transcript for those who prefer to read interviews:
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Hi! I’m Melanie Spanswick and welcome to “Classical Conversations” which is a series of interviews with various artists to be featured on my YouTube channel. Today’s artist is British concert pianist Nick van Bloss. Nick retired from the concert platform for 15 years and he made his comeback in 2009 at Cadogan Hall in London and this was hailed as a triumph by the critics. Since then Nick has toured the UK and America with the English chamber orchestra and has recorded 2 CD’s of Bach’s music for Nimbus records. Amongst his many exciting forthcoming projects is a Hollywood movie made about his life. I’m delighted that Nick has joined me here today at Steinway Hall in London.
Thank you so much for joining me here in Steinway Hall today Nick and I’m going to start by asking you why did you begin to play piano, at what age were you?
NICK VAN BLOSS: Well I was 12 when I started to play the piano. It was a very strange transition because I’ve been a boy who didn’t play the piano and suddenly overnight I almost became someone who wanted a piano as a direction in their life. My parents found an old piano in the street and it said “good home wanted”, so good home there it was, we wheeled it along and I took to it like proverbial duck to water and just started playing, exploring the sounds and feeling around the keyboard and I found it was sort of love at first sight.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s quite late age to start, isn’t it?
NICK VAN BLOSS: It’s a late age, I mean, I wasn’t aware of that.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: No, of course not.
NICK VAN BLOSS: Because I didn’t think “oh I should be playing at the age of 3” but a load of people I knew, so many people later on who sort of been put at the piano as absolute toddlers and you could imagine them sitting there on very high stools almost in a high chair playing. But for me it was, I think it was nice because I found the piano rather than I was directed towards it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes that’s always much, much better I think that way around anyway.
NICK VAN BLOSS: I think it can be, I mean we hear about pushy parents.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes.
NICK VAN BLOSS: With me it was just a feeling of well-being, complete unity with something, an object as it was then because I couldn’t really play I was just touching and tinkering around on the keys.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Sure, sure.
NICK VAN BLOSS: But I knew the sounds were there and something you’ve spoken about before, the sounds are all there and I wanted to make use of them.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, that’s right. Now, you learned very, very quickly I know that because I’ve read in your autobiography that it took you something like 18 months just to get to grade eight which is phenomenally quickly.
NICK VAN BLOSS: It was fast, it… it… I’d love to say I was a child prodigy but I was too old because they could be about 4 or 5 years old. [laughs]
MELANIE SPANSWICK: [laughs] Me too.
NICK VAN BLOSS: But I learned quickly, I think in a sense I had an urgency about me I had catching up to do.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Sure.
NICK VAN BLOSS: There was something driving me, this sense of urgency propelled me to practice and I wasn’t told to practice I just wanted to be at the piano. I adored everything about it, this instrument just gave me meaning my whole life and I felt passionate towards it, so there was a lot of catch up on because people have been studying for years and doing their scales and all the technical things, but I sort of like a little sponge I felt I was absorbing it all and very fast.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes. So when was the light bulb moment then? When did you say “I must be a concert pianist”?
NICK VAN BLOSS: Oh, the light bulb moment. I think that almost happened before I even got the piano.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Really?
NICK VAN BLOSS: It was strange, because I never expected to get the piano but I remember listening to some records as they were then, LPs of Beethoven concertos, and my parents were listening to these things in the house and they were always playing, and Chopin. I remember they were out one day and I put one of these LPs on and sat and did some [gestures with hands] and you know, all the things of a concert pianist and then it went out of my head.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Right.
NICK VAN BLOSS: We got the piano, I decided it was what I wanted to be and very quickly I think I knew I’ve got something I want to do here and…
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You wanted to say something?
NICK VAN BLOSS: Yeah, I don’t even think at that age you know that it’s possible to be a concert pianist. You always imagine a sort of elderly old man in tails sort of sitting very high and playing. So that’s the concert pianist in your mind, but was it possible for me to attain that? I didn’t know then.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: And when you came along to develop your technique, you’ve got a fantastic finger technique, so how did you develop that? Was it scales, was it Czerny studies, was it Chopin studies? Hanon? What did you work at, or did you not? Could you just play?
NICK VAN BLOSS: I didn’t ever do technical exercises.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Really!? Weren’t you lucky.
NICK VAN BLOSS: I barely played scales. Well it is kind of lucky because when I eventually went to college and had to do scales I thought “what on earth are those things?” and everyone was saying “we’ve been doing scales for years”. We did scales as literarily parts of exams and that was when I played a scale but what I found was instead of working away technical things, technical books Hanon and Czerny and Clementi I was exploring the piano literature, so from this very early age I found sight-reading very easy, so I wanted to absorb everything so I went through everything from playing through all Schubert sonatas, all Beethoven’s, probably very badly, I was young, I was developing as a pianist and developing a technique. But all these things helped me clarify what I knew I should have and therefore I knew I wanted and what I got.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: And you would use technique in the pieces then in that sense I suppose.
NICK VAN BLOSS: Yes, because scales are in all the pieces. You play Mozart it’s made up of scales.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Of course yes.
NICK VAN BLOSS: You play Beethoven its arpeggios and scales and so on. Big chords are in Rachmaninoff, line in Schubert. So it’s all there. I wasn’t one for sitting and thinking “well now I’ve got to do B major for a whole day” and then I’ll be stuck in it. So for me it was the question of loving the exploration.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So when did you give your first recital?
NICK VAN BLOSS: First proper recital was at the age of fourteen and a half that was in the Purcell Room.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That’s quite a place isn’t it to give your first recital?
NICK VAN BLOSS: It was quite a place because there I was sitting, I’ve only been playing for few years and I’ve played all the Schubert impromptus op. 90, as a little boy just sitting there thinking here’s a concert grand and I’ve got to do this, it was a shared recital so it wasn’t only me but it was a big thing, it was a London debut if you would like, and I really got off on it.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I bet.
NICK VAN BLOSS: There was something about it, I was making sounds and realising that you could communicate sounds and propel them to the audience and it sparked something in me. Then about 18 months later I did a Queen Elizabeth Hall concert and that was easy for me, and felt again like again, a duck to water. I loved doing that, I wanted to get out there, it wasn’t showing off although there is an element of it at that age.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Definitely.
NICK VAN BLOSS: But you want to show, you want to present yourself, but also this kind of inner strength that it gave me I didn’t come away thinking demoralized quite the opposite, I felt I want more of this.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Right, yes I can imagine that. So as you developed did you have phases of composers you enjoyed to play and what did you start and how did that change as you became older.
NICK VAN BLOSS: That’s the interesting one because I think especially when you’re learning you go through these passionate love affairs almost with pieces and unfortunately as we get older I think we lose that, it’s kind of naïve spark we have, we discover Schumann for the first time and we want to devour everything, we discover Chopin we want to play and relish in the beautiful harmonies. It’s for me, there was so many, I remember going through phase of everything from Stravinsky to Rachmaninoff and back to Bach, I always came back to Bach, that’s another matter. But Bach was always sort of there in the background. But for me it was love affairs of whatever I played so they were always my favourite pieces, it was Prokofiev sonata then Prokofiev was my favourite composer.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: So we met at Royal College of Music junior department and you said so many times how much you enjoyed attending a music college conservatoire on a Saturday, how did you benefit from that?
NICK VAN BLOSS: We were so naïve back then it’s wonderful [laughs].
MELANIE SPANSWICK: We were, I was about 15 you about 16 [laughs].
NICK VAN BLOSS: I know, it’s this naiveté that we love we were so wide eyed that music environment on a Saturday I looked forward to it as you did all week.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I did.
NICK VAN BLOSS: It was the highlight.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: It was.
NICK VAN BLOSS: It was the highlight of my existence actually, it was mixing with other people who were loving the same thing, all naïve which is wonderful it’s a pure time that we have to go through because I think we get can jaded or wiser as we get older but at that age it was so pure and we were just doing it and loving it and there were no barriers, no obstacles we were difficult pieces, chamber music, immersed in the music, immersed in the sounds and I think the benefit was absolutely incredible.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, absolutely. Now when you left the Royal College you did quite a few international competitions and did very well in them, so do you think competitions are still a way forward, can they make or break a pianist career or are they obsolete now actually?
NICK VAN BLOSS: I think they are completely obsolete and always have been, in terms of making or breaking I think they can only do one thing, and that’s break.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Really?
NICK VAN BLOSS: There are examples of pianists like Martha Argerich who won the Busoni competition, an absolutely worthy winner who became and was then and is a great pianist. Now competitions don’t breed that generally. What happens is you play safe for competitions. I discovered very quickly on the circuit that while I was playing my way, people were playing THE way and there was a big difference and once I discovered that THE way and that is the safe way. You tickle the boxes, you do all the right things, you don’t ruffle feathers. You just play safely for the first few rounds, you get through and I didn’t learn that till quite later on. I wish someone would told me actually “you played very safe, it’s almost boring like a good amateur, gifted amateur and you’ll get through”. If you give something with spark in it they tend to reject you instantly. So I think they’re very damaging. Also competition, you can’t compete, it’s not an Olympic sport, there’s no clear winner. It’s how the judges feel on a day, who likes you is often politics with judges. In the olden days and I talk about 40, 50 years ago when competitions were still around we had great pianists on juries, now you don’t know the names of these people. So, is it dangerous to people to these? Yes I think it is. The careers that have made, vanished just as quickly.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes it seems that way. Now I want to talk about your retirement. Because you retired for a long time, so what made you retire and what where you doing during that time?
NICK VAN BLOSS: Retirement came about through, well many reasons. One was musically it was something I… I… think because I started late I missed out on a lot of, perhaps stuff that would have developed a bit later, I’m not necessarily speaking musically I think it’s emotional. It’s the emotional aspect of playing the piano I wasn’t geared towards doing it I think I was too much of a free spirit and I also had health problems. The combination of all made me say “you know it’s time to give this a break, just step out of it, leave the piano entirely” and I got rid of the piano.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: And so when you came back did you find that it changed you musically, did you find that the music became clearer and you had improved as a musician?
NICK VAN BLOSS: You know that’s the wonderful thing, all those thing I struggled at and we all struggle, we desperately try to play Liszt sonatas and Rachmaninov concertos and anything that would show us as being beefy pianists and I was away from that, there was no piano but funny in enough in my head all the time I was in “retirement” I was learning and I immersed myself in, it sounds very spoiled, but I spent my life going around to top opera houses listening to the most magnificent productions, hearing the best singers. That gave me an education that I’ve never had before, it gave me a wisdom and I think it taught me a lot about how to sing at this instrument and how to really become a musician.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, that’s interesting I can imagine that. So when did you decide “I can’t live without a piano, I’ve got to get back to the concert platform.”? Because we all know it’s such a difficult profession and you’ve come back quite spectacularly. So, what made you feel that way?
NICK VAN BLOSS: Do you know what happened? I feel in many ways I was given a gentle shove towards it. There were too many people saying to me “it’s time you did a concert, it’s time you made some recordings, it’s time you came out of this hibernation, this retirement” and I was sort of saying “no, well actually I’m very comfortable and very safe and I’ve got music here all in my head and I haven’t even got a piano I haven’t touched a piano in 15 years, and they were all saying “yeah but it’s time”. So, with gentle nudging I decided to put my toe in the water and then actually I feel right in the pool.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: You discovered you couldn’t live without it anymore.
NICK VAN BLOSS: It was fabulous.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Sir Nicholas Kenyon in his recent BBC radio 3 programme singled out or selected your recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations as one of the definitive 4, the others being Schiff, Gould and Perahia now that’s quite an accolade Nick , I want to ask you how does Bach affect you emotionally?
NICK VAN BLOSS: Well I can certainly say that Nick Kenyon’s comments affected me emotionally.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: I bet they did. [laughs]
NICK VAN BLOSS: I was incredibly thrilled to be put there with these greats.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Fantastic.
NICK VAN BLOSS: But what Bach does to me, I’ve said before I always come back to Bach. It’s… it always sounds like a cliché, I should be saying back to basics but Bach is not basics. I mean Bach is a composer who is, I think, the ultimate genius of all. Many people say he is the father of music, father of classical music, the grand old man of everything, it’s more than that. He’s the standard the staple and for that reason, he falls in to two categories. One – people either love him and want to play him or they shy away because there’s something quite difficult about him the sense that, well we’re playing modern piano. Bach often falls into these two counts of being a composer you absolutely warm to or one that you shy away from. He didn’t write for the modern piano, he wrote for the harpsichord, that’s fine but I mean I love the piano, I’m a piano man I prefer and love the things the piano offers. I think Bach would be thrilled to hear this wonderful sounds and I like to utilize them, I see Bach as a very romantic composer, someone full of emotions so to me it’s natural that Bach should be there and part of it because he’s this person who I think wrote monuments to classical music, monuments to art. His work stand is the greatest achievement I think in the western civilization and we can’t ignore this composer. So we have to, not only approach it with a great deal of care but put our whole souls into him. A lot of people I think went shying away or having to play Bach they very routinely go through emotions and think if I play the notes it will be fine, you put more into Bach I think than any other composer.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Absolutely, yes and almost you need a lifetime before you play it.
NICK VAN BLOSS: Sometimes it feels that way but the great thing about Bach because you need a lifetime, at any point in your life you’ve got that lifetime because he’s there all the way through.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Yes, yes. Now I have to ask you this. This Hollywood film, tell us about the film, more importantly who is going to star as you?
NICK VAN BLOSS: Well I hope someone suitably handsome stars as me but I wouldn’t quite say Hollywood at this stage but certainly feature film heavily in development and it’s based on, well, they say a quirky life which seems to be what people think I’ve had, also this great long period of retirement where a lot of things happened, a lot happened before then but since then there’s been this re-emergence as a pianist and things have started to go well. I think people are realising the love affair I do have with the piano and that actually I can give something. So the filmmakers were very intrigued by this kind of juxtaposition of someone who retires who rejects the piano and then comes back to it, it’s like finding your love.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: That should be very interesting. Do you know when it gonna be coming out?
NICK VAN BLOSS: All I can say is watch the space.
MELANIE SPANSWICK: Watch this space. Nick, thank you very much it’s been a wonderful interviewing you today.
NICK VAN BLOSS: Lovely, thank you, Melanie.
Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.
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