New Classical Tracks: Thirty Little Masterpieces

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
July 2, 2014
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St. Paul, Minn. — Simone Dinnerstein - Bach: Inventions and Sinfonias (Sony 79597)

Simone Dinnerstein was nine years old when she was first exposed to Bach's D minor invention during a music class in the Manhattan School of Music Precollege. On her latest recording, Dinnerstein explores all 30 of these musical ideas.

"All of these pieces, the inventions and sinfonias, seem to say what Bach said in all the rest of his music — but in a nutshell," Dinnerstein says. "And each one is about one or two minutes long and explores a different aspect of counterpoint, a different kind of way of treating a musical idea."

Bach composed these pieces to be a teaching tool. "We're learning about how to both hear and play counterpoint," Dinnerstein explains. "In other words, to hear two independent lines in the case of the two-part inventions or three independent lines, which are in the sinfonias. This is something that's really hard to do-- it's like splitting your brain."

Simone says these little study pieces by Bach are very much like Chopin's études. "Chopin wrote 24 études and each one explores a different aspect of piano technique," she says, "but he did it with such incredible imagination and musicality that they are complete works of music. You could listen to it, blissfully unaware of the technical challenges of playing them. And I think the same could be said about the inventions and sinfonias of Bach — that though they are teaching the keyboard player how to balance two voices, and each one is showing a different way of doing it and a different challenge, you can listen to them for purely musical pleasure, just in the way that you would listen to any other work of Bach."

These works were written originally to be played on a harpsichord or a clavichord. However, Simone prefers to play them on a modern piano. "The piano has a range of sonority and articulation, and I think that allows another dimension into the music," she says. "It's quite interesting to think about. Bach wrote that one of the most important aims of these pieces was to teach the keyboard player how to play in a cantabile style, which means how to play in a singing style. And I've thought quite a lot about what that means if you're playing this on a harpsichord. How do you play in a singing way on a harpsichord? And I think that's worth thinking about as a pianist. And as a pianist, it's much more easy to make the piano sing — there's a kind of richness to the sound, it sustains, you can change the dynamics, you can make it louder or softer, you can change your touch so it can be gentle or sharp or legato, smooth, connecting one note to another or detached."

Simone says it's difficult to choose a favorite of the 15 inventions; however, she's quick to identify her favorite sinfonia. "I would have to say the E-flat," she insists. "I think that is just the most amazingly expressive piece of music and actually it's the least sinfonia-like of all of them. Sinfonias are three voices and all the other sinfonias have three equal voices. The E-flat is different in that it's really like a two part invention with a bass line. So it sounds almost like the left hand is a continuo, like a lute or bass or gamba."

As you listen to each of these 30 little masterpieces, you'll hear a dizzying array of emotions. Bach's music is very spiritual, and Simone argues it also very human. "It's human in the sense that every piece has a very subtly different feeling, the way we as humans have. And what's interesting is that you can also interpret the music in very different ways. So you can hear one person's take on C minor as being completely different than another person's take on it. One person might find the music to be melancholy … another one might find it to be strident. Or another one might find it to be virtuosic — it's a very fascinating aspect of his writing that it can be seen in very many different ways."


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