Goldberg Variations, BWV988
Simone Dinnerstein (piano)
Reviewed by: David M. Rice
Reviewed: 15 August, 2009
Venue: Stanley H. Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center, New York City
Among the most delightful aspects of New York’s “Mostly Mozart Festival” each summer are the late-evening “A Little Night Music” concerts in the Kaplan Penthouse at Lincoln Center, which offer outstanding music-making in an intimate, informal setting. Glass exterior walls provide vistas of the lights of Manhattan as candles flicker in the dimly lit room. The audience, seated cabaret-style at small tables, is provided with complimentary wine and sparkling water. The nocturnal setting and timing – the recital began shortly after 10.30 and did not end until a few minutes into Sunday morning – were especially appropriate for a performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, written for its eponymous court harpsichordist to entertain his insomniac master. In these ideal surroundings, Simone Dinnerstein gave a mesmerising performance of this monumental masterpiece.
Dinnerstein burst onto the international musical scene in spectacular fashion with her 2005 performance of Goldberg Variations in Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. That recital, her Telarc recording of the work (which had been recorded some months earlier, but was not released until August 2007) and her October 2007 debut performance of the Goldbergs at Wigmore Hall all won critical acclaim and have established Dinnerstein’s standing as an important interpreter of this, her signature work.
Dinnerstein performed on a 1903 Hamburg Steinway Model D – the same one used for her recording and her Carnegie Hall debut. This historic piano survived the World War Two blitz in Hull, where it was played by such eminent musicians as Benjamin Britten, Francis Poulenc and Louis Kentner, and later found its way to New York, where it suffered damage from the ‘9/11’ attack on the World Trade Center. It was restored by Sujatri Reisinger of Klavierhaus New York, and has since been used not only by Dinnerstein, but also by such eminent pianists as András Schiff and Richard Goode. It proved perfect for this music, responding to Dinnerstein’s lightest touches, providing incisive delineation in rapid and percussive passages, and lyrical tone in the ‘Aria’ and the slower and more introspective variations.
Her conception of Goldberg Variations has clearly been thought through in minute detail and does not lend itself to any simplistic categorisation. This was a performance unabashedly fashioned for the piano, taking full advantage of its capabilities. And although the lack of dual keyboards poses considerable challenges for the pianist, Dinnerstein was fully up to them, displaying masterful technique and seemingly impossible facility.
Dinnerstein’s playing reflects a deep understanding of the mathematical intricacies embedded in Bach’s inventive, interwoven studies in harmony, counterpoint and keyboard technique. At the same time, she demonstrated a keen appreciation of the importance of shaping a coherent and pleasing musical performance. Her playing of repeats – all were observed in this ninety-minute-plus performance – brought something subtly different to the repetition.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of Goldberg Variations is the set of nine canons, beginning with one on the unison in Variation 3, and continuing every third variation thereafter, each time with the pitch interval between the leading and following voices increased by one note over the preceding canon. Dinnerstein’s choices of tempo, phrasing and dynamic balance effectively explored the varying harmonies, some consonant and some dissonant, created by these ever-widening intervals. She articulated with clarity the varying patterns of counterpoint between voices, including contrary motion (in Variations 12 and 15), widely ranging temporal displacements between voices, and varying patterns by which high or low voices lead or follow one another.
Immediately following five of the nine canons is an odd collection of variations, spaced three or six variations apart, that Dinnerstein used as points of demarcation to break the work up into manageable segments rather than presenting it as a seemingly endless succession of individual variations. Most of the variations that immediately precede the canons (and hence are also spaced three variations apart) are vehicles for demonstrations of brilliant technique. All of these, from Variation 8 onward, were written to be played on two keyboards, thus requiring much hand-crossing on the piano, and these Dinnerstein played with astounding virtuosity and joyful spirit. The prominent bass line highlighted Variation 8, whilst dazzling speed and accuracy in percussive staccato passages stood out in Variations 14, 20 and 23. In Variation 26 it was fascinating to watch (as well as hear) the contrast between left and right hands as rapid, non-stop runs of semiquavers continued right up to the closing crescendo.
Dinnerstein’s ability to play at dazzling speed yet with great delicacy was again on display in Variation 29, which leads to the thirtieth and final variation – a ‘Quodlibet’, built from popular melodies that would have been recognised by listeners in Bach’s time. Here, Dinnerstein projected a sense of comfortable resolution following the travails of all that had come before. The reprise of the ‘Aria’, perhaps even more severely and reflectively played than at the start, brought the evening to a meditative close, with a lengthy silence preceding the outburst of enthusiastic applause.