François Couperin: Les Barricades mystérieuses – Tic-Toc-Choc – Les Barricades mystérieuses redux (arr. S. Dinnerstein)
Robert Schumann: Arabesque in C major, Opus 18 – Kreisleriana, Opus 16
Philip Glass: Mad Rush
Erik Satie: Gnossienne n° 3
Simone Dinnerstein (pianist)
Recording: Home of Simone Dinnerstein, Brooklyn, New York, NY (November 18-19, 2020) – 73’26
Orange Mountain Music #0156 – Booklet in English
Undersong is an ancient term for a song with a refrain. But in in the hands of Simone Dinnerstein, it is much more. The artist who sent waves of surprise, if not shock, through the music world in 2007 with an original take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations has returned several albums later with a collection of works polished and perfected during the pandemic.
The heart of this collection is Robert Schumann’s fiendishly difficult Kreisleriana, opus 16, challenging not only for the technical demands it puts on the pianist, but also for the interpretive choices available for the individual eight movements and how they mesh together as a cohesive artistic whole.
The other works are vintage Dinnerstein as she brings her distinctive style—intimate and elusive—to short works by some of her favorite composers: Couperin, Glass, Satie and another selection by Schumann. We’ve heard similar programs before in other albums by the unconventional American artist, whose success was achieved by making independent career moves such as studying privately rather than at a conservatory, eschewing competitions and financing her own work.
Curiously, the album begins and concludes with the same selection, the French rococo composer Couperin’s Les Barricades mystérieuses. Barely over three minutes in length and taken here at a more leisurely than usual pace, the little piece is sometimes called The Mysterious Labyrinth. Nominally, it suggests a game of hide and seek among aristocrats in verdant passageways, perhaps the hedge maze at Versailles, where one is torn between the joy of getting lost and the frustration of not finding one’s way out. Dinnerstein’s mood in this selection rocks gently between dreamy and wistful. But there is also a contemporary edge to her playing, a clarity and cleanness we hear throughout the album, a unifying thread which stitches these works together stylistically.
Following a charming if somewhat distant reading of Schumann’s Arabesque, Dinnerstein offers Philip Glass’s Mad Rush, a 15-minute work composed to be played on the evening of the Dalai Lama’s first public address in North America in 1979. Glass is known not only for his musical creations, but also for active engagement in Eastern philosophies and religions, notably Tibetan Buddhism. Dinnerstein’s cool, restrained style is ideal for performances of works by this composer, mirroring the ideals of detached focus associated with Eastern traditions. Dinnerstein has made a name for herself in part because of her eloquent advocacy of Glass’s keyboard works, not nearly as well-known as his widely appreciated operas.
Following a chipper Tic-Toc-Choc by Couperin, Dinnerstein brings a lambent glow to Satie’s Gnossiennes. The pianist uncovers the sensuality and allure of this work and shares a sense of its elasticity through shy rubatos. Nothing could be more different than this and the Kreisleriana to follow, yet Dinnerstein transitions to the commanding volume and pace of the Schumann with effortless grace.
The eight sections of the Schumann work explore a universe of feeling achievable through the pianoforte in the mid-1800s. Whether introspective or wildly energetic, the sections emulate the mercurial Kapellmeister of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s imagination, Johannes Kreisler. Schumann greatly admired the work of Hoffmann, a writer and critic whom many consider the founder or at least the inspiration of the Romantic movement.
Dinnerstein’s interpretation of this multifaceted work veers away from the obviously Romantic, engaging with each movement with clarity and warmth. She delivers the first movement, “Ausserst bewegt”, extremely animated, with a rhythm that seems to slouch forward and pull back with carefully calibrated jolts of nervous energy. It is controlled and yet not entirely restrained. The overall effect, as these eight sections are carefully strung together, is one of technical brilliance merged with a unique intellectual clarity and warmheartedness, full of feeling but steering clear of emotional display.
I was particularly moved by the two “langsam” (slow) movements, each a little short of five minutes in length. Perhaps because these original interpretations were birthed during the pandemic, there is a halo of sadness about them, but with no hint of despair. Dinnerstein’s latest collection of piano delights provides aesthetic and intellectual sustenance, the arrangement of her program in itself a work of art. These are songs and refrains that radiate bright thoughts from a warm heart.