Simone Dinnerstein has made quite a splash in the classical music world in recent years with her pleasantly romantic, but (contrary to the hyperbole around it) not particularly revelatory recording of the Goldberg Variations, and her somewhat unorthodox career path. Philadelphia got the chance to experience her chamber music skills. Last Sunday afternoon (7 March) the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society presented the Chiara String Quartet with Ms. Dinnerstein as guest pianist in a programme of Haydn's String Quartet Op. 74 #1 in C (Hob. III:74), a Triptych for string quartet from 2002 by New York composer Robert Sirota, dedicated in memoriam to the victims of the September 11th 2001 terrorist airplane attack, and the Dvorák Piano Quintet in A Op. 81, with Ms. Dinnerstein, in the Van Pelt Auditorium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
From the onset, the quartet dug right into the Haydn with determined energy notwithstanding Rebecca Fischer's (first violin) initial intonation ambiguities in the upper register. That quickly passed; but, what lingered was more troubling: first, Ms. Fischer, had a singularly brittle sound. Some of it came from the instrument; part of it, I suspect had to do with the singular acoustics of the auditorium, which, needless to say, had a peculiarly smothering, almost claustrophobic effect on the listener. Second, mitigation not withstanding, Ms. Fischer's playing lacked refinement or subtlety compared to the rest of the ensemble; that becomes problematic for an Haydn quartet in which the first fiddle is essentially the leader.
However, quartet playing is a team effort; and, although the ensemble as a whole was sufficiently together, there was a feeling that the piece had not been thoroughly thought through. All the notes were there and there was great enthusiasm by all four, but, there was no direction. One could not detect any phrasing, no sense of the total arch of the music. As a result, all of that enthusiasm simply vitiated into the musical equivalent of running in place. Just getting the notes and dynamics right isn't enough.
At anytime a composer has to explain or describe what his music is about, you've got a problem. It's the musical equivalent to the usually pretentious "Artist's Statement" you find in most modern art galleries. However, like one of the plastic arts a piece of music should be able to stand on its own merits without description. For the most part I think Dr. Sirota's piece works, notwithstanding his descriptive notes in the programme.
The strength of the first movement is that it is more metaphorical than literal. The re occurrence, constant transformation and piling up of certain motifs actually draws in the listener to the vortex of the chaos. The one literal effect of the dying car horn at the end, even if you had no "programme" describing it was just very eerie in its own right; and, therefore, very compelling. The two remaining movements felt organically as one in which the dissonance and jagged thematic material gradually evolves into a kind of acquiescence. It was quite evident that there is a personal connection between this ensemble and this piece. The intensity of playing was palpable.
Unfortunately, such was not the case with the Dvorák. The most charitable way I can describe this performance would be… clueless. Again this was not for want of enthusiasm or technique. This performance showed virtually no understanding of the shape of the piece, dynamic subtlety, or phrase shape. Not unlike the Haydn earlier there was a lot of energetic playing but no sense of direction. How does this phrase relate to this one and where to all of these ideas lead? One got no sensation that any of this had been considered.
For example, about half way through the first movement there's a little question and answer section in which the piano says one theme and the strings answer with another. There was absolutely no shaping of the phrase by Ms. Dinnerstein which would have led to a reciprocal reply by the strings. Dynamics where either fortissimo or piano and little in between. With the fortes they saved nothing. Crescendos went essentially from loud to louder so that by the time they reached the coda there was nothing more to give with the result being disappointingly anti-climactic.
Another example of this complete disregard for subtlety and elegance was the very opening to the delicate and sublime Dumka. The triplet in that opening them is much more than a mere ornament; it's an integral part of the melody. Moreover, the statement of that simple, elegantly plaintive theme sets the mood for the whole movement. Ms. Dinnerstein evidently felt the need to get through that triplet as soon as possible, practically banging out the tune with absolutely no shaping of that phrase.
Now I've heard a lot of hype about Ms. Dinnerstein and how she has become quite the darling of music critics. If her insensitive, unimaginative playing of the Dvorák Piano Quintet is any indication of her style I'm afraid that I'll have to pass on all of that praise. I saw nothing perceptive, elegant, or thoughtful about her performance. I wouldn't go so far as to call it crass, but it certainly wasn't terribly discriminating.
Between Ms. Dinnerstein's bombast, Ms. Fischer's borderline ugly sounding instrument, and the entire group's total disregard of phrase and dynamic subtlety (such as folk dances that didn't dance) we were left with a lot of overwrought playing that went nowhere. A saving grace would occur when one of the other members of the quartet would solo. Julie Yoon (second violin) had a warm, sweet tone that made one wish hers was first; similarly Gregory Beaver would make his 'cello sing very elegantly, if all too infrequently. The Piano Quintet gave Dvorák the opportunity to feature his instrument, and violist Jonah Sirota (son of the composer above) carried the day with each solo he gave showing great sensitivity to the line each time.
Unfortunately, the total was considerably less than the sum of the parts. In addition to the shortcomings mentioned, a major factor was balance, or rather the lack thereof. I know that having the lid up to a grand piano looks "cool an' all;" and when your playing music of relatively light textures, such as Mozart or Haydn that's fine; but when performing a romantic, full-bodied piece like the Dvorák a Steinway concert grand can easily overpower the strings. And that's what happened here. There where moments when you could barely hear the strings because the piano was so overwhelming. In fact, only sporadically was the piano subdued enough to be in proper balance.
If they had simply put the lid up partially at least there would have been a better balance between the piano and the strings. Didn't they have anybody sit out in the hall and listen? That might have helped. As for the rest? This quartet seriously needs to think about how to study and discern the architecture of a score and find a cohesively blended sound. And Ms. Fischer seriously needs to think of how she can extract a beautiful sound from that instrument or get a new one.