Bach on the Piano: Simone Dinnerstein plays for the Berkshire Bach Society

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Simone Dinnerstein
Simone Dinnerstein

Berkshire Bach Society Presents Simone Dinnerstein Playing J. S. Bach

Saturday October 3 at Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock

Philip Lasser, “Twelve Variations on a Chorale by J. S. Bach;”
J. S. Bach, French Suite no. 5 in G major
Preludes and Fugues from the Well-tempered Clavier, Book II
Keyboard Concerto no. 1 in D minor, with string ensemble

The superb pianist Simone Dinnerstein offered her highly personal view of Bach in a comprehensive manner on Saturday night at Bard College at Simon’s Rock in a program sponsored by the Berkshire Bach Society. (Full disclosure: this writer is a member of the board of the society.) Playing a modern Hamburg Steinway concert grand, Ms Dinnerstein displayed complete and consistent command over all aspects of piano performance, making liberal use of the coloristic possibilities of touch and pedals, and employing a dramatically wide dynamic range. The presentation included regular displays of keyboard virtuosity that clearly took the collective breath away from the adoring audience. The evening was an overt triumph for all concerned, and the Bach Society demonstrated Bach’s adaptability to modern instruments and contemporary musical circumstances.

All performances are adaptations; the writer Richard Taruskin has firmly established that there is no attaining true ‘authenticity’ in performance, that is, reproduction of some hypothetical original performance or even correspondance with the composer’s original intention. Both of these goals are chimeras and we would never know it if they had indeed been attained. Musicians have now replaced the word ‘authentic’ with the more modest claim of ‘historical’ or even ‘historically informed.’ How did Ms Dinnerstein’s performance match up with currently accepted notions of ‘historically informed’ and why should we, the audience, even care?

By starting the evening with a contemporary composition based on and inspired by (but not imitating) Bach, the audience was put on notice that it was about to receive a decidedly contemporary view of the composer, one that fully acknowledges the distance of 300 years between Bach’s time and ours. It is almost as if the concert were gaining a subtitle: “Bach in 2009.” This may remind us of the many ways in which Bach had already been adapted in the 20th century: Busoni’s adaptations of the keyboard music for the piano, Gustav Mahler’s re-orchestration of Bach’s orchestral suites, Leopold Stokowski’s arrangements of organ works for modern symphony orchestra (see the opening of Disney’s “Fantasia” for an example), Wendy Carlos’s rendition of Bach on the Moog synthesizer (entitled “Switched-on Bach”), and more radical de-constructions such as Lukas Foss’s “Phorion” (“Stolen Goods”), not to speak of the jazz renditions of the Swingle Singers or Jacques Loussier.

Philip Lasser’s “12 Variations on a Chorale by J. S. Bach” is a highly skillful extended composition which clearly intends to make use of the full resources of the grand piano as well as the virtuosity of the performer; it is also a searching meditation on an ostensibly modest work by Bach, the chorale from cantata 101, “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott” which is better known as the tune to the hymn “Vater unser im Himmelreich.” In his notes to the composition, Lasser points out the inconspicuous but highly artistic way that Bach harmonizes this tune by means of secondary lines that are saturated with motives from the tune itself. This provides Lasser with a modus operandus for his own well-structured variations. In addition to pointing out the nooks and crannies of Bach’s miniature masterpiece, Lasser also takes us on an historical journey, moving through the centuries of musical growth and change subsequent to and often inspired by Bach. The chorale statement and the strictly contrapuntal first variation remain within Bach’s linear, ordered universe, but the second and third variations move dramatically to the nineteenth century, becoming more dynamic and tonally unstable. The fourth variation particularly caught my attention: it was a reimagining of the tune through the lens of Brahms’s beautiful late Intermezzo in B minor, op. 119 no. 1.

The next series of variations brought us into an interesting parallel universe, that of the early twentieth century and particularly of American composers post-Dvorak who sought to render spirituals and folk-songs in an ‘artistic’ manner suitable to the concert stage. These would include Edward MacDowell, Henry Burleigh, Arthur Farwell, and Percy Grainger. One was delighted to detect subtle hints of the blues and even Gershwin within the chromatics and extended harmonies. In the eighth variation, Lasser meditates on the antiquity of the chorale, which is far older than Bach and is in fact in the Dorian mode rather than a minor scale. (Such historical exploration is still very much within the mind-set of the twentieth/twenty-first centuries.) The subsequent Largo was based on a seven-note ostinato pearling away under sustained chorale phrases, as if the Lord’s Prayer had wandered onto the stage of the Ballet Russe during a performance of Stravinsky’s “Firebird.” It was a delicately balanced, beautiful effect. In the tenth variation, the spirit of Bach as virtuoso appeared with a two-handed chordal technique reminiscent of “Goldberg” variation no. 29. This preceded the “Variation of Variations” in which Lasser’s historical survey zoomed in on his own work, subjecting the preceding ten variations to a parallel set of transformations. The final variation returned to the essence of the tune, boiled down to a four-note motto that seems to have been abstracted from all previous associations and functions as it were beyond the framework of both Bach and history. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling performance of this work; the playing illuminated each moment in a way that seemed inevitable.

I devote so much space to this piece partly because it is a fine one and deserves notice on its own, and partly because, as the opening of the program, it set the tone for all that was to follow. The French Suite in G major and the preludes and fugues from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” book II all achieved their own transformations through the intense medium of Dinnerstein’s eloquent pianism. This is a potent combination of serious engagement with the score and intense emotional response to each detail of the music, conveyed by a total command of the expressive power of the piano. Heard this way, one’s attention was constantly drawn to the individual moment as it was made to stand out from the larger context. The moments connected to a larger structure, but one seemingly erected by the pianist rather than the composer. Because of the high profile of each detail, the longer line of Bach’s discourse tended to be obscured. Perhaps another way to put it is that the line became one of color and dynamics rather than of phrases and rhetoric.

Other pianists have concerned themselves significantly with Bach’s music. They can be divided into BG and AG, divided by the year 1955 when Glenn Gould’s first recording of the Goldberg Variations was released. Older school pianists included Ferrucio Busoni, Bela Bartok and Edwin Fischer; more recently we have Roslyn Tureck, Andras Schiff, Murray Perahia , Peter Serkin, and Angela Hewitt. Each one must decide how the piano is to be used for Bach; there is no received tradition here. That Dinnerstein has joined this company speaks powerfully for her success. She takes an extreme position in relation to her colleagues, doing nothing to limit the expressive power of the piano. Why have others taken a different approach? I believe it may be a case of “less is more” when it comes to Bach: a desire to let the music at least appear to be speaking for itself, with the performer withdrawing slightly from the spotlight in order to call our attention to the inherent logic and power of Bach’s discourse. Not so with Dinnerstein; the E major fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, book II, is a highly ‘learned’ work using an old-style (and therefore highly restrained) tune (in the baroque such melodies were referred to as ‘stile antico’) subjected to intricate contrapuntal treatment, particularly strettos (as pointed out in the excellent notes). Dinnerstein’s interpretive approach focused all attention on dynamics, starting out with a breath-takingly quiet statement of the tune and building gradually but inexorably to a grandiose climax at the flurry before the final cadence. On a harpsichord or organ, this piece would build its dynamic level based on the number and pace of voices themselves; there is little the player can do to alter that and so the structure of the music literally speaks for itself, aided perhaps by subtle modifications of rhythm that the performer can use to highlight the larger flow of events. The pianist has the choice to demonstrate that process, or push it along with dramatic use of dynamics. The prelude in C-sharp major from the same collection began with a very pleasant arpeggio pattern that immediately took on a warm, lyrical character. It felt very familiar and I found myself waiting for a chorale type tune to enter over it (which doesn’t ever happen). I realized that was because this opening bore a strong resemblance to opening of the aria “Sheep may safely graze” as it would sound if played in the kind of romantic piano transcription that used to be made by Busoni. I love Busoni’s arrangements, but they are clearly artifacts of the romantic/modern period. The presence of a modern romantic sensibility was never far from the surface of Ms. Dinnerstein’s playing.

The most problematic piece on the program was the D minor piano concerto, accompanied by a one-on-a-part ensemble of excellent string players. This would undoubtedly have worked splendidly if the keyboard were a harpsichord, which is an instrument that is made to blend in with a group of strings. The piece is composed so that the featured instrument starts as a mere presence within the whole ensemble when it plays together in the ritornelli (refrains) of the first and last movements. It then will emerge clearly in the solos which are either thinly scored or lack the strings altogether. But Dinnerstein made the decision that the solo instrument should dominate at all times, and she boosted the volume of the piano for the ritornelli, producing a harsh and unblended mix in which the disadvantaged strings came off as thin-sounding. When the ensemble dropped out, Dinnerstein lowered the volume to present quiet and polished presentations of the solo material. The acoustic effect seemed backwards: if the keyboard plays at constant volume, the sudden absence of strings has the effect of pushing its sound forward. In addition, the high and low strings never achieved a cohesive blend, with a very rotund double-bass going one way while the delicate violins went the other. None of this was helped by the constant vibrato that the players needed to reinforce their sound to a competitive level; that only succeeded in making a truly resonant mass of well-tuned sound unattainable.

The Adagio was taken at a very slow pace, which could have worked powerfully save for the fact that heavy accents were made on every beat, rather than being reserved only for important downbeats. This continuously emphatic style and slow tempo offered the image of a very long dry journey across a kind of waste-land. Such may well have been the performers’ collective intention but the end result was impressively dreary. The arches of the musical architecture remained unsprung.
In the end, Dinnerstein’s virtuosity conquered all, and the valiant string players stuck with her to an exciting conclusion that brought the audience to its feet. The question this raises involves the nature of the presentation rather than the issue of quality. The only piece on the program that Bach intended to be heard in a concert setting was the concerto, where the choice of modern instruments and playing style, widely accepted in today’s concert life, seemed damaging to the nature of the concerto as a genre, in which there should be a real contest between sound forces rather than the continuous domination of one by the other. (Imagine a reverse situation where a harpsichord is accompanied by an orchestra of 60 strings.) All the remaining pieces were composed as intimate works to be heard in rooms of modest dimensions by relatively small numbers of listeners. In the case of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the intention behind the music was pedagogic, and listeners were expected to be connoisseurs, as the members of Bach’s own household, the first to hear this music, were. They were expected to recognize the most complex structural elements of the music. This presents a serious problem for a modern concert performer. Should the keyboard player seek to draw the audience into that rarified circle of learned and loving listeners (C. P. E. Bach called them “Kenner und Liebhaber”) or should she use all means available to project the music dramatically outward, to explode it in a way that lays it all before the audience in a manner that is unavoidable and compelling, albeit distorted from an historical perspective? On Saturday night, the choice of the artist was clear.

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