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Undersong dinnerstein OMM0156
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François COUPERIN (1668-1733)
Les Barricades Mystérieuses [3:08]
Tic Toc Choc [2:33]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Arabesque, Op.18 [7:31]
Kreisleriana, Op.16 [37:30]
Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Mad Rush [15:44]
Erik SATIE (1866-1925)
Gnossienne No.3 [4:12]
Les Barricades Mystérieuses [3:18]
Simone Dinnerstein (piano)
rec. November 2020, the pianist's apartment, New York City

During the pandemic hiatus of 2020, Simone Dinnerstein busied herself with a trilogy of recordings made in her own home with curated recital programs exploring a mood or idea. Undersong is the third album of the trilogy, and it is a triumph of themed programming, juxtaposing some unexpected composers in a way that shines light on them all, albeit here a shadowy and reflected light.

Though some of the pieces here are nocturnal, the true theme is suggested by the title, which Dinnerstein took from an Emerson poem about the vast, slow rhythms beneath the frantic activity of the world, an idea that resonates with all these pieces. All of them use subtle transformation of apparent repetition to grasp larger ideas than the surfaces ever present. Hearing them in a thoughtfully built program increases that sense of meaningfulness, and makes for a moving listening experience worth repeated visits.

The disc opens with Couperin's familiar Les Barricades Mystérieuses, but not played here as a baroque recital showpiece. For that, one can always turn to Alexandre Tharaud's performance on Harmonia Mundi France, which is fully twice as fast as Dinnerstein's thoughtful exploration. Even Angela Hewitt's relaxed exposition of Couperin's mysterious, slightly melancholy deflections (on the Hyperion label) seems closer to the sec style of the original harpsichord. Yet, unexpectedly, Dinnerstein's flexibility actually reminds me of the insights of a harpsichord master like Skip Sempé (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi), who brings these patterns off the printed page and gives them shape.

Without pause, Dinnerstein turns to Schumann's Arabesque as naturally as a shift in thought, and the sudden jump of over a century in time is seamless. Schumann's interlocking patterns distantly echo the French composer's shapes, while pulling in a more impulsive direction. The pianist's flexibility and attention to changing atmospheres triggered by the shifting patterns makes the pieces flow together.

The next jump, of over 150 years, should be more difficult, but Dinnerstein's way of emphasizing emotion and musical shape over abstract line makes Philip Glass's mesmeric Mad Rush follow the Schumann as if it were the most natural thing in the world. In that, Dinnerstein actually follows the composer's lead from his Sony recording of the piece, except that Dinnerstein has a subtle shaping ability that Glass as a pianist simply does not. This kicks the piece up to a new level, particularly when Dinnerstein takes an unexpected new approach to the third and final outburst of madly rushing passagework, playing it dry and staccato with no sustaining pedal. It's a breathtaking moment, emphasizing the insanity of the frantic activity. It also serves to make the final section, with its fragile melody in high octaves, sound that much more vulnerable. Anyone wanting a more abstract, even mechanical approach is welcome to explore the coldly impressive recording by Bruce Brubaker on the label infiné.

After Mad Rush is over, Dinnerstein thoughtfully mulls over one of the patterns from the Glass piece, as if realizing it is a pattern in the next one, thus providing a clever bridge into Couperin's lively Tic Toc Choc. The lighter-spirited play of this music releases the built-up tension of the first half of this program.

The only actual pauses in the room noise of the recorded sound come on either side of Erik Satie's Gnossienne No.3, effectively offsetting this evocation of the spooky labyrinth of Knossos as the keystone of the album. It, too, is a perfect example of the repetition and shift, and Dinnerstein's performance relishes the mystery.

The bulk of the second half of the program is Schumann's gloriously strange Kreisleriana, a suite of eight fantasies inspired by the character of a mad musician named Johannes Kreisler in a collection of stories by E. T. A. Hoffman (he of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann and also of the story upon which Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker is based). Hoffmann's eccentric character appealed to Schumann's own divergent sides, and inspired him to create one of the greatest piano pieces ever written.

Most importantly, Dinnerstein's performance works wonderfully within this program, pulling together the ideas of hidden messages and secret passages hinted at in the other works. But even outside the context of this album, this is a performance of Kreisleriana to treasure. It is the most leisurely exploration of the work I know, giving it an intimate, late-night feel that is an absolutely valid approach. Whereas pianists like Cortot (EMI), Horowitz (Sony), and Argerich (DG) emphasize the explosive side of Schumann's creation, and others like Lupu (Decca), Egorov (EMI), Cherkassky (Nimbus), and Schliessmann (MSR) balance the range, Dinnerstein doesn't hesitate to plunge deep into the introspective corners of the piece, while still delivering ample fireworks in the fiery parts. Best of all is her performance of Schumann's anti-finale, slyly playful in a sinister way that refuses to be rushed like the average performance, finally unsettlingly disappearing into nothingness.

Rounding off the album is a return to Les Barricades Mystérieuses, subtly different now after the visions it has seen. This is the kind of program curation that makes you remember why you fell in love with music in the first place. I can only imagine this disc coming down regularly off the shelf and quickly becoming a beloved friend.

As an in-home recording would necessitate, the recorded sound is very close-up and intimate, another thing that separates this Kreisleriana from recordings that more or less try to duplicate the concert hall experience. Its most direct antecedent would by the 1974 recording by the great Annerose Schmidt (Berlin Classics), which was recorded in a studio instead of the preferred church acoustic of the original label (V. E. B. Deutsche Schallplatten). Schmidt wanted the clarity and intimacy of the small studio acoustic, and her performance is one of the greats that is not to be missed. But her emphasis was on sinewy clarity and intensity, which is a very different feel from Dinnerstein's visionary realm. But the recorded sound here works perfectly for the introspective context.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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