Classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein first came to the attention of many of us through her startlingly warm-blooded interpretations of the music of J.S. Bach. I had grown up hearing Bach’s keyboard music played with great rhythmic regularity; Dinnerstein’s fluid emotionality brought out passions in the music that usually remained, if not hidden, then much more subdued.
Just as an interpretive palette can be broadened, so can a compositional one. Philip Glass’s oeuvre has grown far beyond the Minimalism that first shot him into the 20th-century zeitgeist. (Indeed, he has created works based on Bach’s, as Dinnerstein well knows.) Though it retains elements of Minimalism, Glass’s piano music has elicited strong depth of feeling from numerous interpreters. On her new album A Character of Quiet Dinnerstein’s emotional acumen perfectly suits three well-chosen Glass Etudes that, together with Schubert’s familiar Sonata in Bb, comprise the set.
Recorded at her Brooklyn home in June during the coronavirus pandemic, the album casts a warm, intimate spell, beginning with Glass’s tense, rather solemn Piano Etude No. 16. Dinnerstein’s honeyed rubatos and sensitive dynamics make this rather somber piece a feast of feeling. In its dominant quieter sections as well as in its explosive interlude it brings Schubert’s Impromptus to mind, suggesting that some of Minimalism’s roots can be traced to Schubert’s powerful use of repeated elements. I sense Schubert in Glass’s anxious Piano Etude No. 6, too. Dinnerstein’s fluid approach serves it well, right through to its thoroughly modern, abrupt ending.
The languid Etude No. 2 is something of a letdown in this context; the pianist plumbs it for meaning and plays it with gravitas but I just don’t think it has the same potential for narrative drama. It sounds like it’s from an inoffensive soundtrack to an indie film.
Dinnerstein sees the consonances between the two composers this way: “I love their pared down quality, their economy, their ability to change everything by changing just one note in a chord. Their asceticism suited the moment. But there is a sensual element in both, too, because the human voice is central to Glass and Schubert’s sound worlds.” She approaches the Schubert with a tone that’s somewhat muted yet far from ascetic. The long opening movement takes on a wandering quality, but without becoming unfocused; her variegated touch reveals the composer’s imaginative complexities. With all his accessibility, all his vaunted melodicism, Schubert could use nearly every club in his bag when he wished.
It’s in her aching interpretation of the Andante that I really feel I’m hearing a familiar piece anew. Its fragile opening strains hark back to Glass’s Etude No. 2 (which I make a note to go back and listen to one more time). Those gorgeous chord changes roll through my brain with a soft intensity I’ve never before perceived. Dinnerstein also uses space with great finesse here, as she does in the staccatos of the gently bright Scherzo – where she leaves room for hints of un-Scherzo-like pain. That ache flowers with more complexity in the finale. The dynamic variety, the ebbs and flows so characteristic of her playing, reach something like perfection here.
And all with no loss of enunciation. Every one of Schubert’s perfectly crafted notes, chords, and changes shines distinctly through the entire sonata. In fact Dinnerstein’s masterful and thoroughly adult interpretive force makes the whole album a balm for the soul, especially in such troubled times as these.
Simone Dinnerstein’s A Character of Quiet will be released September 18, 2020 on Orange Mountain Music. Visit her website to listen and purchase.