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Keyboard Ruminations, Old and New

New York
Miller Theater, Columbia University
01/23/2014 -  
Johann Sebastian Bach: Two-Part Inventions, BWV 782-786
George Crumb: Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik
Nico Muhly: You Can’t Get There From Here (New York Premiere)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111

Simone Dinnerstein (Pianist)

S. Dinnerstein (© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)

Simone Dinnerstein happily accepts her appelation as a “Bach-packer”, an artist whose world-wide concerts inevitably include J. S. Bach. Besides concert halls, she introdcues old Johann in penitentiaries, schools and other unlikely venues where Bach is as strange (and inscrutable) as Minoan Linear B tablets.

Although her Goldberg Variations disc has been a best-seller, Ms. Dinnerstein is hardly a Wanda Landowska, and she has no desire to circumscribe herself to the Cantor of Leipzig. She has been a fiend for contemporary music, plays her Beethoven and Chopin, and attracts large audiences for her interview personality, which encompasses that rare alliance of Grand Artist and Brooklyn Mother.

Ms. Dinnerstein’s recital in Miller Theater last night was packed with admirers, and her program was typical, beginning with a Bach (which is never played in recitals) ending with the most enigmatic Beethoven final sonata, both sandwiching in a new work by the young Nico Mulhy and a seminal work by the old (but always youthful) George Crumb.

The start was, to these ears, less than promising. The complete book of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions is part of every young students’ repertory, but I’ve never heard this in the concert hall. And I certainly didn’t want to hear them with the Steinway Grand opened as wide as possible, as we had last night.

Would I personally have preferred a harpsichord (the two registers would offer color), or even an old spinet or virginal to give a sense of intimacy? Not usually. But her performance here was more flat-out literal than life-like. Ms. Dinnerstein played them with good (if not faultless) accuracy. But this was a monochromatic performance. The volume was the same for each, with great changes in speed but rarely in color or temperament.

(She was also severely limited by the sniffles, sneezes, coughs and other nasal sounds from an audience. The pianist could have added to her venues the ambient equivalent of a tuberculosis sanatorium.)

The second work was, thankfully, not only a contrast but a totally inspired work by Nico Muhly. Other composers may have been as fecund as Mr. Muhly is, but the consistent quality of a Teleman or Villa-Lobos is variable. Not this composer, whose every work breathes quality and originality.

His piano piece, You Can’t Get There From Here was a New York premiere, and the enigmatic title obviously came from a centuries-old jape. (Asks a stagecoach diver or motorist to an old farmer, “How do I get to Smithtown?” Answers the farmer, “Smithtown? You can’t get there from here.”)

Well, Mr. Muhly made a point of “not” getting anywhere from wherever he was. Supposedly the music came from fragments of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, but those fragments (which I couldn’t recognize at all) would start, twist around, stop suddenly, go onto a recitative for piano, return for a second, then whizz onto a totally new section. It was an emotional and technical circus of notes, and a challenge to Ms. Dinnerstein, who gave the premiere. But her fingers did the work, and she switched emotional changes like a Nascar driver switches gears. Great fun altogether.

The second half was also New and Old, the bond between Crumb and Beethoven being the art of rumination.

This was nominatively true in George Crumb’s A Little Midnight Music, subtitled (“Ruminations on ’Round Music by Thelonius Monk). George Crumb is always a delicious, wonderful, inventive and joyous composer, but he took on a heavyweight when he took on that giant Thelonius Monk.

I had heard Monk play several times, and no matter how far he departed from his original subject, Monk instinctively and artistically maintained a cohesion, a feeling that his music was organic, that it continued inevitably from the original cell.

This music should have had its nine sections listed in the program. The audience should have been aware of George Crumb’s jocular references to Cobweb Peasblossom, Golliwog Revisited (with a quote from Debussy), or Cadenza with Tolling Bells. But even without that, the long pauses between movements while Ms. Dinnerstein adjusted her piano for the inner strings or various Aeolian harp sounds, changed the music from typical Crumb prestidigitation to a series of puzzles (with quotes from Gershwin, Stravinsky and the usual Wagner Tristan) and some self-conscious aural tricks.

The Beethoven Opus 111 finishing the program was also ruminative. Those second movement variations are not the usual exercises in transformation. These are Beethoven’s wanderings, speculations, meditations. Probably no pianist has ever been satisfied at the end. Like the gods, there is always quite a bit that we don’t know about these notes, always something else which should be brought out.

Ms. Dinnerstein gave a solid performance, those major-minor trills effortless and well-played as the rest of the music. Solidity, though, is never quite enough for Beethoven’s last words in the piano sonata form. Ms Dinnerstein’s performance was neither divine nor sublime. Some in the audience stood up in appreciation. I didn’t feel enough buoyancy to rise from my seat, but did feel that for a pianist of her youth and intelligence, the performance was, for the nonce, sufficiently gratifying.

Harry Rolnick



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