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Simone Dinnerstein at the Kennedy Center

Brooklyn pianist Simone Dinnerstein hit the big time a couple years ago with a surprise hit recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. We liked the recording, with a few reservations, and were impressed by her performance of the work in Baltimore. (She has played the second half of the work again here in Washington and has also made a comfortable collaboration with cellist Zuill Bailey.) Dinnerstein was a natural choice for Washington Performing Arts Society to present on its Hayes Piano Series at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon, in a program more or less identical to the Berlin recital on her latest CD. In spite of some beautiful playing and daring interpretative ideas -- perhaps too much of the latter -- it was an often unsatisfying recital, reinforcing doubts in the air about the long-term possibilities of Dinnerstein's career.

What stood out in her Goldberg performances was the attention to the independence of inner voices, sometimes at the risk of an overly mannered distortion of the rhythmic pulse, with technique that was pétillant at its best. These qualities again came to the fore as her greatest strength in the two works at the program's heart. More Bach, the fifth French suite (G major, BWV 816), had the best playing, in its fleet, fabulous Gigue -- why did more of the recital not have this kind of vitality and drive? The same was true of the gently bubbling Allemande and briskly rippling Courante, with a lively range of attacks and colors. In the Sarabande and especially the Louré, Dinnerstein manipulated the tempo too much, resulting in playing that was just too distorted and mannered for my taste.

Available from Amazon
Berlin Recital, S. Dinnerstein
The great discovery of the recital was the new set of variations on Bach's chorale harmonization Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, a work by composer and Juilliard faculty member Philip Lasser that Dinnerstein has been championing. Proceeding seamlessly from the Bach theme, the idiom remains mostly tonal, allowing Lasser to explore most of the traditional twists of the variation genre, placing the tune in the bass, paraphrasing it in imitative snippets, dressing it up in different stylistic costumes. At the same time, as a more or less "post-atonal" composer, he drew out other sympathetic vibrations from the original: chromatically altered chords in the jazzy fifth variation of harmonic substitutions, a Ravel-esque jets d'eau sixth variation (Lasser studied in France), an obsessive iteration of the half-step motifs in the tune in the eighth variation, even the obsequious treacle of a Windham Hill easy listening disc in the sinuous ostinato of the ninth. Lasser, who was in the house to accept the acknowledgment of his new work, is a composer to watch.

The other doubt about Dinnerstein that resurfaced in this recital was in the form of memory slips, of which there were a couple very minor examples in her Baltimore concert. Here, as there, Dinnerstein recovered just fine, by repeating a not insignificant part of Schubert's G-flat impromptu (D. 899). Overall the Schubert did not convince, from an inexplicably slow and tentative performance of the C minor to a somewhat self-absorbed approach to the G-flat. There was nothing rash or unexpected: it was all a bit polite and well pronounced, with lengthening and drawing out unnaturally outweighing moving ahead and forward, all give and no take.

Other Reviews:

Philip Kennicott, Dinnerstein, Casting a Spell With A Whisper (Washington Post, February 9)
The concluding work, Beethoven's C minor sonata, op. 111, is just not one of my favorites, even in a more convincing performance. Dinnerstein had some impressive sounds -- whirring 32nd notes and some crashing fullness in the first movement -- but at times the playing seemed a bit out of her control, and there was another memory slip. The second movement opened up a bit by the second and third variations, where the dotted rhythms veered a little Joplinesque, swinging perhaps too much, but the interpretation just seemed aimless.

For an interesting comparison to Simone Dinnerstein's recital, check out the WPAS-sponsored concert by pianist Olga Kern next month (March 22, 4 pm) in the Music Center at Strathmore.


jfl said...

"Beethoven's C minor sonata, op. 111, is just not one of my favorites..."


When was the last time you've read Dr. Faust?

Homework: Chapter 8, twice through. Followed by repeated listening of Pollini's recording. That should do the trick. Otherwise: repent. (I wonder what they meant.)

Charles T. Downey said...

I know, I know. Lewis Lockwood, In his analysis, quotes one of Beethoven's entries in the Conversation Book around the time of op. 111: "The moral law within us, and the starry heavens above us. Kant!!!" Lockwood goes on to say, "It is just this spirit, of the mortal, vulnerable human being striving against the odds to hold his moral being steady in order to gather strength as an artist to strive toward the heavens -- it is this conjoining that we feel at the end of Opus 111 and in a few other moments in Beethoven's last works."

I know it's a great work. It's just not, for me, one of those works that I will love hearing at any time, even in a performance that does not inspire. Now, Pollini -- that is another matter!