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Simone Dinnerstein's Goldberg Variations

available at AmazonJ.S.Bach, Goldberg Variations, Simone Dinnerstein

Much hoopla has been made of Simone Dinnerstein's recently released recording of the Goldberg Variations. Anne Midgette writes in the New York Times ("How Do You Move a Career Into High Gear? By Breaking the Rules") about Mrs. Dinnerstein's unusual path to pianistic glory and fame - from which she was ever so far removed until the then 32-year old rented out Weill Hall and gave an audacious debut with the Goldberg Variations. (Charles heard and reviewed Ms. Dinnerstein's Goldberg recital in Baltimore. Read his review here.)

The sold-out recital was a great success, not the least because several critics attended and found themselves impressed. A recording of the Goldberg Variations she had produced and raised the money for now found its way to Telarc who have just released it to--and with--much fanfare. Mrs. Dinnerstein is now an IMG artist and her concert calendar solidly booked. The times of frustrating and dispiriting 'giglets' playing at nursing homes and retirement communities (now very benevolently billed as her "commit[ment] to broadening the reach of classical music") are finally over.

Alas, it might not be quite as unique as it is made out to be: Martin Stadtfeld, a young German pianist who styles himself a bit too much as European Glenn Gould (or is that Sony's doing?), too, chose to record the Goldberg Variations on his own account, sent the result off to different labels and was picked up by Sony. He, too, launched his career that way. Stadtfeld and his positively wacky approach differs, wilfully, from all others and makes Gould's recording seem bourgeois. It is naturally tempting to compare the two versions–-in a later post, perhaps.

Firstly: Ignore Dinnerstein's picture-heavy liner notes--Simone Dinnerstein's three paragraphs about the Goldberg Variations are astonishing only for their concentration of cliché per square inch: “The inventiveness of Bach's composition is astounding. The canons alone are remarkable examples of compositional virtuosity. The Goldberg Variations is a late work, and it can remind the listener of so many elements of Bach's tremendously varied musical output [...]. It is a piece with a profound sense of structure and organization [...] It is as expressive as it is diverse. Each variation explores a distinctive mood, a particular sound world, and a unique shade of character and emotion. We live in a world that is unimaginably different from Bach's, but this piece speaks to us as powerfully as though it was written for our time.”

I summarize: The Goldberg Variations are an astoundingly inventive and tremendously expressive, profoundly structured and diversely distinctive, uniquely powerful and remarkably varied set of Variations. Ghost writing credits go to Jack Handey from Saturday Night Live. Thankfully she plays nothing like she writes.

Though Mrs. Dinnerstein immersed herself in Glenn Gould's 1955 recording and of the GV, she does not end up sounding like him. Compare her Aria at 5'39'' to Gould's blazing, repeat-free 1'52''. She should have taken on one little touch that Gould was (to my knowledge) the first to employ, though: a minor stroke of genius in the Aria where the arpeggiated chord in bar 11 is not played, as standard, from bottom to top but top to bottom. That little downward trickle is brilliant and most ears that have heard it like that will want it no other way. She stretches the chord out further and very softly plays it conventionally from bottom to top – almost a 'third', still different way to do it.

Patient and gently moving in the Aria, she (ever duly repeat-observing) takes all the time she needs to indulge in every note. If she were taking a walk in the neighborhood instead, she'd be seen smelling every last rose on the way. And then when she gets to that arpeggiated chord a second time, lest the repeat be a carbon copy of what had come before, she takes it, just as softly, from top to bottom. Lovely.

She displays fine speeds in the faster Variations, though still nothing compared to Gould's “Speed Demon” approach (his words). Every note has its accentuation, there is a purpose and flow in her playing, the sound of her touch on the restored 1902 Steinway D is warm and round, not unlike Murray Perahia's--if not always as nuanced and even in the upper register. And in in the slow Variations she really slows it down so that every note of every flourish stands individually and discernibly in the air for a little while. There is a reverential quality to much of it; a caressing somewhere between radiant (Variation 9) and lugubrious (Variation 27), church (Variations 6 and 29) and, well..., retirement community (Variation 22).

A (dis)advantageous quality of Bach's music--and the Goldberg Variations in particular--is that you can pull it apart about as much as you want and it will still sound good, the lines will still be there. There are moments where Simone Dinnerstein plays in the style an amateur Goldberg enthusiast might want to, if only he or she had her abilities: The result is probably all-too-indulgent for some and just perfect for others... at any rate bound to be a very personal choice. The ever present revelry has me miss the incredible forward momentum that a tighter approach - for example Yevgeny Koroliov's--can achieve in the Variations. (Although if I want that, maybe I should just put his – a 'dark-horse' favorite--disc in the player.)

That it isn't for lack of skill that Mrs. Dinnerstein plays the way she does is impressively but beyond any doubt in Variation No.5 or 26 where she presents an immaculate technique, speeds that nearly rival Gould; with time to spare to give the different lines character and color.

The raves that can be read (, New York Times et al.) might go a little far in their comparisons to Glenn Gould, Wanda Landowska, and Dame Myra Hess; noting Schumanesque touches in one Variation, Debussy or Ravel in another. Claims more dubious still than insisting on the presence of wild raspberry, essence of sun-dried leather, and hints of nutmeg in a young Merlot. But anyone who will give this release more than a cynical rolling of the eyes (tempting, admittedly) will find out that it is holding the #1 classical spot on iTunes and #3 overall music spot on for a better reason than just being an all-American feel-good dream story. There are tons of flavors in that wine... a very 'female' interpretation, pregnant with meaning, wafting white garments and a soft focus. Bach with a hint of Zamfir and Zinfandel.