New Classical Tracks: A Young Pianist's Bach

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
January 18, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — Francis Bacon wrote, "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." It's that quote which inspired the title for Simone Dinnerstein's latest recording, "Strange Beauty." Dinnerstein says that title really describes for her the music of Bach. "When I heard that quote it made me think of Bach's music because I think that though we tend to think about Bach as being about symmetry and mathematics and perfect form, he actually tends to shy away from those forms and he always deviates from them, harmonically or rhythmically or in terms of the voicing of the chord or a melody. And it's those times that he moves away from what's expected and does something which is, you know, essentially a purposeful mistake, it's those times that makes the music so incredibly special and beautiful and human."

Dinnerstein's big breakthrough occurred when she decided to record Bach's Goldberg Variations. "I was pregnant in 2001 and I was preparing for a debut recital in Philadelphia, being presented by Astral and I decided I wanted to spend my pregnancy working on a piece of music that I found very meaningful, that I thought would be the right music for my baby to listen to, and I couldn't think of anything better than the Goldberg Variations, and that's what started the whole thing."

That whole thing continues on her latest Bach recording, "So this CD is, I think, an interesting grouping of works that sort of bring together different parts of Bach's life. There are chorale-preludes which are, you know, originated from cantatas and then he rewrote for the organ - they're essentially organ improvisations on chorales. And then I'm playing three different ones that have been transcribed by three different pianists from the early 20th century."

My favorite is a transcription by Wilhelm Kempff of Bach's "Nun Freut Euch, Lieben Christian gmein." Dinnerstein chose this transcription over that of Busoni because Busoni's version leaves something out, "He just goes straight into the chorale prelude part of it, the improvisation. So I liked the Kempff version because it starts off with the chorale. And then you hear the chorale repeated in the middle voice. So you have a sort of tenor line that's carrying the melody of the chorale. And then there's kind of a walking bass line underneath that - like in jazz where you hear the bass player playing a kind of riff underneath. And then above that is this crazy, florid...melody of notes that is running around the chorale."

"Every piece on this recording is something that I treasure," Dinnerstein explains, "The first chorale-prelude is actually a piece that I heard as a teenager in a film, in Tarkovski's Solaris. And I fell in love with the piece when I watched the film and I always wanted to play it but I never learned it until I had to for this recording. And I just think that that piece is like the turning of the earth. I mean it's just so deep and it's so...slow but kind of unyieldingly going to a place of incredible beauty. It's really an experience to play that piece."

There are also two keyboard concertos on this disc featuring Dinnerstein with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Dinnerstein says what's really exciting about this performance is what's missing - no conductor. She led the ensemble; however, trying to communicate her approach to players who didn't speak English was no easy task. "And what we wound up doing was I would play for them and they would listen. And then they would play for me and I would listen to them. And we kind of went back and forth like that and it was very interesting because they really got it in the end. And it was great while we were playing because they were very, very visually communicative and they played standing up, which was very exciting. I mean, everybody except the cellists, obviously. But they were standing for like six or seven hours each day which I found incredibly impressive."

"And the concertos, they're just so beautiful. And kind of tragic and also, you know, exquisitely beautiful. The slow movement of the f minor is just a complete joy to play. It's like being an opera singer, playing that movement. So you know all of these pieces have something about them that has meant something to me for quite some time. It was music that I had thought about for many years and it felt amazing to finally play these pieces after having them brew in me for years."

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