The Wife and I had a front-row view of greatness last week. Literally, we sat in Row A at Smith College's Sweeney Concert Hall on Wednesday evening, as pianist Simone Dinnerstein enthralled a large, attentive audience with a program of Bach (French Suite No. 5, English Suite No. 3, Partita No. 1) and Schubert (Four Impromptus, Op. 90). There was so much to admire in this recital that it's hard to know where to begin. But let's start with Dinnerstein's artistic courage.
Courage? What courage? It's not as if one could be put in jail for what one does to Bach and Schubert, at least in civilized countries. And sure, some performers have to deal with serious stage fright, even over long, successful careers, but most seem to get by OK without falling apart. If you can't stand the heat, as they say, don't sit under the lights. So how could playing a piano recital be an act of courage?
Well, it isn't always, at least to the degree Dinnerstein demonstrated last week. Some recitals, even very fine ones, go by with the pianist scarcely questioning a single established idea about how the music should go. Indeed, some of the best pianists make it their life's mission to seek and reveal the inner truth of the music they play, without drawing attention to themselves. Among current pianists, Murray Perahia might be the foremost exponent of such deeply musical but self-effacing piano artistry. Angela Hewitt, who also performed in the area recently (at Amherst College in April) similarly excels not by grabbing the limelight, but by illuminating the music she plays — and very beautifully at that. It's not easy to be so ego-free without being downright dull, but those who can put it off usually become critical favorites, and deservedly so.
On the other hand, challenge a single piece of conventional wisdom about the interpretation of a beloved masterwork, and many of the same critics will slap you down faster than a Bach Gigue (as played by Glenn Gould). The more interpretive personality you show, the more distinctive your vision of the music, the more critical opprobrium you stand to receive. "Mannered" is the favored critical injunction in such cases, one used twice in this review by an elder statesman of classical criticism of Simone Dinnerstein's "Something Almost Being Said" CD, which contains some of the music from her Smith recital.
But never mind the critics, at least for now. How about the risk one takes by exposing one's most personal feelings in public, even if those feelings are "only" about a piece of music? How about the vulnerability of a performer taking serious interpretive chances, especially in an age that prefers a more literal, "faithful" approach to music? When you're playing a piano recital, you're all alone up there, and have no one else to blame when your big chances fall flat. So, better to play it safe, right?
Perish the thought. For then, we'd have been denied Dinnerstein's unique, compelling vision of Bach and Schubert, one which sounds like no one else's, but which — and this is the crucial part — nonetheless sounds as if it emerged from inside the music, rather than being imposed upon the music. Let me take two movements as examples. In the Sarabande of Bach's English Suite No. 3, Dinnerstein created a tragic, mysterious mood right off the bat, with a grave tempo, extreme color contrasts and fierce trills. Then, when the first section was repeated, the extremes became even more extreme. Bach's stately chords fragmented into ominous arpeggios (the notes "rolled" like on a harp, rather than being struck together), and his plain melodies took on jagged ornaments (added notes improvised by the performer). In the second section, also repeated (the standard form for the movements of Bach's suites), Dinnerstein plunged us progressively deeper into the abyss — what frightening, gnarly sounds she coaxed out of the piano's bass register! By contrast, the concluding Gigue of the Partita No. 1, played as a crisp virtuoso romp by many pianists, took on the quality of a Romantic Etude in Dinnerstein's approach, its crossings of hands becoming a graceful manual ballet.
Does Bach say to play his pieces this way? Hardly. But he also doesn't say not to. And if that's what these pieces say to Simone Dinnerstein, and she can make such a strong case for her vision, I'm willing to follow her all the way. Because that's where she goes — all the way. Nothing ambivalent or half-hearted for her. She has the courage of her musical convictions, and the musicianship to pull it off. Simone Dinnerstein's got guts, and I admire her for it. (Disclosure: I volunteer as artistic director, i.e., music picker-outer, for Music In Deerfield, the series which presented this concert.)