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Dinnerstein has an intimate way with Bach

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has caused quite a stir in the music world with her highly personal approach to Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

She brought it to Harris Hall on Tuesday evening, and if you went into the concert expecting to hear something like the famous recordings by Glenn Gould, well, Dinnerstein is just about as polar opposite as you can get. Not for her the steady metronomic pulse one usually associates with Baroque music. Rhythmic steadiness, in fact, seems furthest from her mind.

Instead, she reinvents Bach’s music, written for harpsichord, in the context of the colors and sounds possible on a modern 10-foot grand piano. But she has little interest in making big sounds. Instead, the 75-minute performance Tuesday explored just how delicate this music can be. The result was a very intimate performance.



As if to emphasize this sense of intimacy, she slipped off her shoes when she sat down at the piano. At the halfway point of the 30 variations, she stopped to sip her way through an entire glass of orange juice, still seated at the piano bench, the audience waiting in hushed silence.

She played the aria, which opens and closes the work, hesitantly, almost apologetically, and continued in a leisurely vein through the first three variations, including the first of nine canons that arrive every third variation. The next three got bolder, the next three sunnier. There was an emotional pang to every variation. In her hands, one sounded bittersweet, the next gentle as a caress, the famous Adagio wistful, ending with a tragic aura.




To get those emotional triggers, Dinnerstein pulled on the music like taffy. The music repeats a lot, and any musician must decide how to change the approach the second time so it doesn’t get boring. The second time through, Dinnerstein often introduced lots of rubato ” getting faster and slower within the same measure ” the sort of thing we associate more with Puccini than Bach. Also, aiming so much for delicacy sacrificed some of the drama and majesty in this music.

Though she played all the repeats in the aria and some of the variations, she took some or none in others, including the final iteration of the aria. This created odd balances for Bach’s architecture. The final six variations, for example, make a dramatic arc that climaxes this long journey; although she played them with barely a breath between them, the final variation subsided so gently that the re-entrance of the aria seemed more like a natural extension than the drink of cool water it usually is.

A few minor flubs aside, Dinnerstein showed impressive technical command, and she clearly knew what she wanted to do with this music. To my ears, she wanted to make it warm and cuddly. I’m not sure that’s what Bach had in mind.

I am not certain exactly what Andreas Haefliger wanted to do with Schubert and Brahms in his “Evening WIth …” on Thursday in the Tent. The pianist partnered with members of the Ying Quartet for some pleasant music-making, even if the results did little to make the blood quicken. Haefliger seemed content to be mellow, applying more pedal than most big-time pianists would in Brahms’ Piano Sonata No. 2 in F-sharp minor. Without much rhythmic definition, it just ambled along. The Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor never achieved liftoff either, despite the strong efforts of the string players. The subdued tone worked well, however, in Schubert’s quiet Piano Trio in E-flat.

The evening did introduce baritone Christian Gerhaher in a set of melancholy Schubert songs. His sound and his attention to detail bode well for his solo recital tonight of Schumann songs.

The American Brass Quintet’s annual concert Wednesday night offered a potpourri that included a world premiere of a piece by Gordon Beeferman, the recipient of a grant for an “emerging” (their word) composer. His Brass Quintet had some nice moments, but not enough to make the dissonant 15-minute piece absorbing. Copperwave, by Joan Tower, showed a much more knowing hand, and Symphony in Brass, by Eric Ewazen, used extra brass players and percussion to make more accessible and dramatic music. Of several arrangements of older music, the most rewarding were lovely reworkings by Brian Fennerly of Brahms chorales.


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