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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 [78.02]
Simone Dinnerstein (piano)
rec. March 2005, Academy of Arts and Letters, New York.
TELARC CD80692 [78.02] 

 


It must be hard to record the Goldberg Variations today. With literally dozens of recordings available for harpsichord, piano, clavichord, organ, guitar, string trio and other transcriptions, this work is very well represented, with many excellent performances. Not only does one have to swim against the tide of other recordings but you’re also up against the spectre of Glenn Gould, who famously recorded the Goldbergs twice (in 1955 and 1981).

I'm sure most readers of this review are familiar with the work: an aria, thirty variations, then an aria da capo; these are not variations on a melody, but rather a bass-line. Perhaps Bach's best known major work, the Goldbergs are an anthology of different styles, tones and musical colours.

Simone Dinnerstein comes to this recording in a unique way. Having self-produced this album in order to jump-start her career, it was later picked up by Telarc, and her professional life has leapt into full gear. She is very good at promotion, with her own web-site and MySpace page, and having a pretty face can't hurt. 

But Dinnerstein is not just a blue-eyed wonder. Her recording of the Goldbergs is unique, and stands apart from many of the interpretations available. First, the basics. The recording is impeccable, and the sound of the 1903 Hamburg Steinway model D concert grand is rich and luscious. It has a close, homey sound, unlike some recordings of the Goldbergs that try for a big, imposing sound, using reverb or aiming to reflect the impersonal sound of a large, empty concert hall. 

When you first start listening to this recording, you cannot avoid being struck by the slowness of the opening aria. While some other performers - notably Gould in 1981 - turn this into a meditation, Dinnerstein goes much further, as though she were stroking the keys of her piano to squeeze out every nuance and subtle colour in the piece. She plays the full repeat of the aria, making it more than five and a half minutes long - the longest of the more than twenty versions of the Goldbergs in my collection. Then the first variation comes, and Dinnerstein shifts into high-gear; perhaps too much of a shift for my taste, though she negotiates every tight curve perfectly - there is no doubt about her ability to play the most virtuosic passages without even batting an eyelid.

As the work goes on, one may be struck by the differences in tempi; in fact, if I have one criticism of this recording, it's the stark contrast that Dinnerstein makes, at times, between one variation and the next. She is at her strongest in the slow, languorous variations, where she draws them out, turning them into romantic miniatures. Some people may think that "romantic" Bach is an anachronism; I don't feel that way at all.

At times, her tempi sound "normal", at least in comparison with other recordings. In variation 13, for example, she seems to have found the ideal middle-ground, yet with her performance of the repeats, this variation still takes over five minutes. Variation 21 is another long, meditative section, at over four minutes, and, again, the tone here is one of introspection. Variation 22, melodically very close to the opening and closing aria, is even slower. It's not as though Dinnerstein is trying to find different ways to play any of the variations; one can hear that she's found her sweet spot for each one, and that some are slow, others very slow, and others more rapid. In fact, as the work progresses, the extremes fade away, and the tempi are more familiar. There are more slower tempi than in many recordings, but the contrasts are less obvious. 

Yet for all her slow tempi, Dinnerstein gives short shrift to variation 25, the long, slow adagio which is, in my opinion, one of Bach's masterpieces. At a bit under five minutes, this is shorter than many performances - notably shorter and faster than Gould's 1981 recording. Even so this is exactly the point where I would have expected her to stretch out and take her time. She does play slowly and with very interesting dynamics, but doesn't play the repeats. This, in essence, weakens this variation, which is one of the most profound, and, in Dinnerstein's approach, should have been the cornerstone.

Dinnerstein doesn't play all the repeats. With the recording coming in at over 78 minutes, this may be due to the limits of a single CD. In the promotional video on her web site, she mentions that when she plays the work with all the repeats it takes about 90 minutes. In a way, it's a shame that the recording doesn't go all the way. It seems that Dinnerstein's recording would be more balanced with that extra dozen minutes of music. To be fair, very few Goldberg Variations recordings cover two CDs; one recent exception is Richard Egarr's recording on Harmonia Mundi, which clocks in at just over 90 minutes. 

This is an excellent recording of the Goldberg Variations, yet because of the extremes of tempi it lacks overall balance. It's clear that Dinnerstein has carefully thought out how she approaches each variation, yet perhaps she is missing a bit of the forest for the trees. At times it sounds as though she wants to slow down the music and get to the quanta of the notes; at others she goes along in overdrive. While this contrast is not necessarily a negative, it can be jarring, especially early in the work where it is most apparent. But this is one recording I'll be listening to many times. Of the two-dozen Goldberg Variations recordings in my collection, this one is definitely in the top five. Nevertheless, I'll look forward to the day that Simone Dinnerstein can re-record this work, taking all the space and time she needs. 

Kirk McElhearn 

 

 


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