Simone Dinnerstein's “Strange” Bach

Jeff Dunn on January 30, 2011
Bach: A Strange Beauty

When lauded strangeness becomes vastly public, it may herald a change of fashion. Such seem to be Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach interpretations, which bring elements of romanticism back into Baroque performance practice. Her Carnegie-Hall take on the Goldberg variations, so different from Glenn Gould’s iconic style, brought some attention to her biography, which was discovered to be readymade for media exploitation in American Dream mode. Thus, one of the tens of thousands of excellent pianists got her day in the sun, and her story in Oprah’s O magazine.

Bach: A Strange Beauty is her bid for a second day of piano-solo sun. It will not disappoint her newfound fans, nor will it convince her detractors. The title comes from a Francis Bacon quote, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” But the strangeness to some ears will lie not in the way she handles Bach’s proportions—they are conventional, though at times a bit on the drawn-out side. It is Dinnerstein’s tone and methods of attack that will surprise: It is her almost Romantic-style legato and narrow-ranged rhythmic freedom that impresses. In the rich, low-note-dominated opening number, Ferruccio Busoni’s arrangement of the opening prelude to the cantata Ich rufe zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639, this approach reaps the greatest rewards to the listener. It is also successful in the Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052, and Myra Hess’ arrangement of the ever-popular Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring that concludes the release.

Listen To The Music

Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ

Keyboard Concerto No. 5, III. Presto

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Even though Dinnerstein (read an interview) pares back her legato in the English Suite No. 3, traces of it bite her in the handling of trills, which sound a tinge muddled at times. They really need to pop in the Suite. Fortunately, the rest of her technique is flawless, and her interpretations are well thought out and cohesive.

Dinnerstein’s distinctive sound seems at odds with the Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin that accompanies her in the Keyboard Concerto No. 1, and No. 5 in F minor, BWV 1056. The strings come across as rather dry and thin, however well played. This kept making me wish Dinnerstein were playing a harpsichord instead for these works.

At a minimum, this CD is worth investigating for the gorgeous Ich rufe zu Dir and the album that opens up to show a romantic photo of Dinnerstein, dressed like Liszt, walking with her eyes closed along a lake. Will she fall in?