Simone Dinnerstein's "A Strange Beauty"

Sunday, January 09, 2011

We tend to think of J.S. Bach as the most logical of all composers. His formal rigor drives the 32 Goldberg Variations and the 48 preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier, among other precisely balanced creations. Simone Dinnerstein hears things differently.

On "Bach: A Strange Beauty," she goes looking for the expected patterns, the off-kilter rhythms and the mysterious and hyper-expressive sounds in the composer's music. This collection -- which contains three transcriptions of his Chorale Preludes, two Keyboard Concertos and one English Suite -- is our Album of the Week.

The Brooklyn-based Dinnerstein is no stranger to pushing the envelope when it comes to Bach interpretation. In 2007, she achieved an unexpected breakthrough after teaching herself and recording the Goldberg Variations. Telarc picked up the album and it became one of the year’s biggest success stories. The originality of her interpretation surprised (and, in a few cases, puzzled) many who were familiar with this work.

On Dinnerstein’s Sony debut, she continues her quest to draw out unexpected qualities in Bach. Her penchant for shading effects and for contrasts in dynamics is particularly found in the Prelude arrangements. A haze of pedaling envelops Wilhelm Kempff’s arrangement of Nun freut euch while a Schubertian sense of line and rubato dominates Busoni’s arrangement of Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ.

Dinnerstein plays up the asymmetries and off-kilter elements of the concertos, especially the opening of the D-minor Concerto with its quirky offbeats. The F-minor Concerto, meanwhile, has a kind of romantic grandeur. The English Suite No. 3 in G minor is leaner and more straightforward, though the dynamics -- whispered pianissimos and ferocious fortes -- remind us that this is a Dinnerstein performance.

“A Strange Beauty” takes its title from the 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon, who observed, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” The daughter of a painter, Dinnerstein is also drawn to visual analogies and the album includes several paintings that inspire her, reproduced below.

Bach: A Strange Beauty
Simone Dinnerstein, piano
Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin
Sony Classical
Available at Arkivmusic.com

Simon Dinnerstein: The Fulbright Triptych, 1971-74, oil on wood panels
Simon Dinnerstein: The Fulbright Triptych, 1971-74 , oil on wood panels

Simone Dinnerstein writes: "'Strangeness in some proportion' is what I like in all of the arts. My father is an artist and I grew up discussing this with him as it applies to the fine arts."

Simon Dinnerstein: Alexander Studio, 1979, oil on wood panel
Simon Dinnerstein: Alexander Studio, 1979, oil on wood panel
Simon Dinnerstein's Purple Pride
Simon Dinnerstein's Purple Pride
Hans Holbein the Younger's Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze
Hans Holbein the Younger's Portrait of the Merchant Georg Gisze
Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding, 1434, oil on wood panel
Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Wedding, 1434, oil on wood panel

Simone Dinnerstein writes: "That’s one of my favourite paintings. One of the things I find interesting about Van Eyck is that his paintings are incredibly expressive, and yet if you look at the man and woman in this painting their faces have no expression on them at all. There’s something very static about the painting because they are just standing there, but at the same time they are clearly caught in the act of motion because of the way the man is holding her hand. The dog is looking out at you and you see Van Eyck in the mirror painting the scene."

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Comments [14]

Patrick Nugent from Cincinnati, Ohio

What is "fresh" and "revelatory" about Dinnerstein's interpretation of the Goldberg Variations is not that she "hears" it as "beautiful" nor that she lacks "mind." Her interpretation deliberately contradicts a three-generation-long answer to the puzzle of how to interpret Bach's keyboard music on an instrument he never knew and did not write for, the modern pianoforte. Not just the modern one, but the late-20th-century one, and not just that but the Steinway. The classic debate is between playing it with all the capabilities--power, depth, richness--of the piano, which makes it sound "Romantic"--and playing it with no more capabilities than instruments of BAch's day possessed.

Since the First World War, playing Bach on the piano "Romantically" is passe, gauche, and heretical. Twentieth-century interpretation, of which Glenn Gould is the master, demands that we must make the piano, which Bach did not write for, sound like the clavichord, which he did write for. It had little sustaining power, muted dynamics, a percussive and sharp action, and nothing like a damper pedal. So modern pianists have been trained to play with lots of staccato, a finger stroke that truly strikes the key like a hen pecking the ground, little to no sostenuto or pedal, and a sound that is difficult not to bring off as "mechanical." That's how I learned it and that's how I play it.

Dinnerstein has thrown that tradition out the window yet without swallowing Bach up in Romantic excess. What she has done, I think, is to ask whether one can combine the subtlety, clarity, and precision of Bach's keyboard works with the dynamic range, color, depth, harmonic complexity, and richness of the modern piano, in such a way as to play not as Bach would have composed for the clavichord (or even organ) but as he composed for the orchestra or the choir. Dinnerstein treats her piano like a chamber orchestra or a vocal ensemble. She draws on the instrument's depth and power but with restraint (the key balance), abandons the plucked and percussive attack, and blends it with the musical range Bach had at his disposal in his orchestral and choral music. One can disagree with her choice, but it is intellectually deliberate and provocative, and only the hardest of hearts and most hen-pecking of finger techniques can deny that the result is nothing short of gorgeous. I believe it is the equal of Gould and superior to other, more balanced and still excellent performances such as that of Hewitt.

Jan. 27 2012 09:41 PM

Konstantin Lifchitz is - alas - a greatly under-rated pianist. I too love his Goldberg.
@@

Jan. 19 2011 07:04 PM
Victor from West Orange, NJ

Ok, let's compare Ms. Dinnerstein to herself. In her commentaries to whatever she does she calls Bach's music "beautiful" and not much more. This CD also has a word "beauty" in it's title. Correspondingly, Ms. Dinnerstein plays Bach as a "beautiful" music, which is conceptually wrong. She understands this music this way, she plays it this way and I hear it this way. Is such a "fresh viewpoint" sufficient justification for encores? I don't think so.

Jan. 15 2011 11:41 PM
Michael Meltzer

It is a common sin of marketing people to present whatever is the current object of their attention as the greatest thing that has ever happened on the planet Earth. Perhaps that is supposed to be their job.
This is true of the "Album of the Week" department, and maybe it's not always fair to the artist. Grigolo should not have been compared to Pavarotti, and Dinnerstein should not be compared to Gould. That line of thinking is the wrong way to go.
Ms. Dinnerstein has successfully commanded our attention with an unusual talent and a fresh viewpoint. Her other CD with the cellist was remarkable. We will all pay attention to the next thing she does, that's guaranteed. What else can someone want?

Jan. 15 2011 06:21 PM
Victor from West Orange, NJ

As Christopher said - "Delightful playing". Unfortunately, there is not much more. Bach's music sometimes being characterized as a "readiness for death" and I do not hear it in SD performance.
I hear sometimes that SD Goldberg Variations is a second best after Gould's, but I do not think these performances even in the same league. I think that at least Angela Hewitt and Grigory Sokolov are between GG and SD. Horowitz used to say that performer must have right amount of technique, mind and heart and I think in this case only technique is in place. There is too much of heart and joy and too little of mind. Just compare how Gould and Dinnerstein speak about Bach's music - and here is where the difference comes from.

Jan. 15 2011 04:32 PM
Nancy Wight from New York City

If you want to hear the best Goldberg Variations version, in my opinion, listen to Konstantin Lifschitz on Denon. It's a revelation. Forget the rest!

Nancy Wight

Jan. 14 2011 09:57 AM
g hirsch from halifax, ns

Great to hear a new interpretation and from a young artist. Even Gould varied his interpretations of the Goldberg Variations over his own lifetime. Great to hear it on NPR.

Jan. 12 2011 04:37 PM
Ralph from Delaware

Finally someone other than Gould that I can listen to for Bach. Her Goldberg is the best since Gould's 1981 recording.

Jan. 12 2011 03:27 PM
Michael Meltzer

Anyone who can play the Goldberg Variations well can call themselves a virtuoso if they choose. No one is going to argue that one.

Jan. 11 2011 01:02 PM
brian from Brooklyn

Outstanding, fresh, original, inventive. This is how you keep this kind of stuff alive as generations pass. Proof also that mind-blowing technical skills and virtuosity are not necessary to interpretive excellence. I'm also pleased to hear she's from my boro!

Jan. 11 2011 11:44 AM
Christopher

Delightful playing.

Jan. 11 2011 10:08 AM

You can hear all or any part of Ms Dinnerstein's album courtesy of NPR/music at

http://www.npr.org/2011/01/09/132624232/first-listen-simone-dinnerstein-bach-a-strange-beauty

Jan. 10 2011 10:56 PM
Michael Meltzer

Listener Robert has a point, but I'm not sure of to what standard that "Album of the Week" is to be held. Looking back on many of the choices, I think the title would more precisely be "Novelty Album of the Week," which is a legitimate category and will always have its share of ready customers.
Ms. Dinerstein is a charismatic performer, and one definition of a charismatic performance is that "no words can describe it." Perhaps all the printed hype above is counterproductive and leads the listener to miss the mark.

Jan. 10 2011 05:43 PM
Robert from NYC

Earlier, WQXR broadcast the Allemande from the English Suite a little while ago. The allemande is a dance form, but I heard -- that is, *felt* -- nothing of the dance in Dinnerstein's performance, which came across as ruminative perhaps, dreamy certainly, much more "emotion recollected in tranquility," which is to say decidedly sedentary Romanticism rather than active Baroque boogieing.

And note to website editors: while Dinnerstein stripped the dance out of Bach, you stripped the article out of her album title, which is "Bach: A Strange Beauty."

Jan. 10 2011 03:49 PM

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