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Simone Dinnerstein - The Berlin Concert
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

French Suite No 5 BWV 816 [18:30]

Encore: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988: Variation 13, [5:24]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Sonata No. 32, op.111 [28:08]
Philip LASSER (b.1963)

Twelve Variations on a Chorale by J.S. Bach [22:21]
Simone Dinnerstein (piano)
rec. 22 November 2007,  Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie, Berlin (live)

TELARC CD80715 [74:37]
Experience Classicsonline

Truth in advertising and breathless PR-work can, at times, come perilously close to mutual exclusivity. I often wonder to what extent hyperbole-laden copy of media relations personnel backfires, especially since it usually goes to professionals who have heard and seen it all and know how to read through the code. Would it really be so harmful not to make something less seem like a little more at every occasion?

With Simone Dinnerstein’s new release on Telarc, the slick attempt to spice up every last phrase includes even the title: “Simone Dinnerstein, The Berlin Concert”. There are a few pianists who have had a “The Berlin Concert”. Evgeni Kissin’s debut under Karajan at the 1988 New Year’s concert was one such event. And, although that could already be stretching it, so was the concert by Arkadi Volodos with the same Berlin Philharmonic and James Levine eleven years later. “The Berlin Concert” has a tempting ring to it. It comes with connotations of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - which wasn’t anywhere near Ms. Dinnerstein then or since. And how easily does “at the Berlin Philharmonic” (Chamber Music Hall) become “with the Berlin Philharmonic” in subsequent press announcements by presenters that don’t catch the subtle difference. A strategically induced ‘mistake’, no doubt. 

“The Berlin Concert” also insinuates that it was a big event with hints of red carpet, columns of searchlights left and right, and critics in eager anticipation at the vast 2440 seat Philharmonie. Whether quite that much attention was given in Berlin’s 1180 seat Kammermusiksaal (admittedly adjacent to the Philharmonic Hall), despite the astounding success of her Goldberg Variations released three months earlier, is questionable. And no one makes that claim, explicitly. 

It’s a sickness of our times that spin - whether in politics, business, or the arts - is the preferred and predominant mode of public communication and those of us who object to honesty, straight-talk, and frankness taking a back seat can only hope that it is not so much an Orwellian omen but a fad, soon again out of fashion like excessive shoulder pads. 

Better than to let Simone Dinnerstein’s PR-hounds do the talking, let’s listen - by way of skipping the artists vacuous liner notes - to what the music has to say, which is, these four-hundred introductory words notwithstanding, the ultimate arbiter of a CD’s value. 

She opens with Bach’s French Suite No.5 in G major, which is in keeping with her Goldberg Variation success that brought her from ‘giglets’ in nursing homes to the concertizing limelight. Whenever she plays Bach, for better or worse, I can’t help thinking that it’s taken from – or belongs on – a “Bach for Babies” or “Lullabies for Lovers” CD. The wallowing style has its appeal, but I’m not sure I’m proud of whatever part in me it is that this appeals to. Perhaps the one that would like to play piano itself, to indulge in pianistic exaggeration, the part that would like to underline everything already in italics and put in parentheses whatever is in small fonts. Ultimately I find the ostentation of her mannerisms, the caressing, and rhythmic freewheeling more detriment than their superficial seduction a benefit. Recent recordings by Gulda (see review) and especially Till Fellner show that less is (much) more.

There is even less I can recommend in the performance of Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata, op.111. If this is “the last classical piano sonata”, not just Beethoven’s, but the Omega of its genre - as Adorno, via Thomas Mann via Wendell Kretschmar would have it - Dinnerstein sure doesn’t make a case for it. There is nothing of the patrician heaping of music upon music that Arrau brings to this, nothing of the crystalline, tight-lipped energy of (early!) Serkin, and certainly no hint of the momentous vertical struggle and intellectual rigor that Pollini, in one of his greatest recordings, has achieved. Worse yet: there is nothing that Dinnerstein has to offer in place of any of these qualities; just the notes, played efficiently and with mechanical accomplishment. 

So far it sounds like this CD would already be in my ‘discard’ pile. Instead I will file it under “L”, and regard it highly. Because centre-recital Dinnerstein plays Philip Lasser’s Twelve Variations on a Chorale by J.S. Bach. And that’s what you will want to hear. The chorale is “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott” from Cantata BWV 101 and the forty-six year young Lasser, who is a member of the faculty at Juilliard, finds 12 ways to vary this that are typical of his style which simply calling “neo-romantic” would be rather too simple. It’s part of a new, bold melodiousness that is inoculated against the accusation of kitsch or triteness through sheer quality and originality. Lasser, and a very select few other composers, manage to write music that can be immediately established as new, yet uses means that have been part of the composer’s toolkit for a hundreds of  years. More graphically: Those who like the ‘music’ of John Rutter, Andrew Lloyd-Webber, or John Williams will find Lasser equally appealing as those who can’t control their gag reflex at the very mention of those composers’ drivel. 

Best of all, Dinnerstein’s essentially romantic, eagerly pleasing style, coupled with her technical faculty, not only allows the Lasser to shine, it positively contributes to it. Bach provides the structure, Lasser’s perennial French air absorbs Dinnerstein’s floweriness, and the audible 21st century, modern touch assures the whole concoction stays lean and clean. 

Consider the Bach and Beethoven on this disc the packaging; the former of which may well conform to many a listener’s taste more than to mine, the latter which probably can’t be helped. The Lasser is the center of this musical tootsie roll and it’s worth getting there, no matter how many licks it takes.

Jens F Laurson


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