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Slow, sensuous Dinnerstein Goldberg Variations
on February 26, 2014
Before starting my actual review, a word on the ongoing comments on Amazon about Simone Dinnerstein's highly-touted debut recording of the Goldberg Variations. I review classical recordings as a hobby here on this site so I am exposed to maybe half a dozen recordings a month which are new to me. So I listened to the Dinnerstein CD a few weeks for the first time, without paying too much attention to the publicity the disc has received and unaware of the comments on Amazon, and my reaction was that this was a worthy effort from a talented pianist with a strong interpretive view. It's not my favorite Goldberg Variations - I have some criticisms - but there's no doubt about Dinnerstein's talent, technical ability or the fact that she has something to say. Some of the individual variations are played just beautifully. To me, as a regular review without any strong preconceptions, that equals an automatic five-star rating, without any grey area.
Then I read the Amazon commentary. Now I am a male with conservative political views, but reading some of it makes me understand why feminism has such strong appeal to contemporary women. There is an undertone of cranky and petulant hostility, completely unjustified by what's actually on the disc, in many of the lower-rated reviews here that is unmistakable. It's objectionable and my surmise is - and pardon me if I am wrong - that it is partly caused because this novel interpretation of the Goldberg's comes from a young (!) woman (!).
Classical music is in dire straits today, economically, and we should welcome and support talented young artists like Dinnerstein, accepting that there will be some aspects of their performances that are not entirely to our taste.
Now for the actual review: Dinnerstein's playing of the Goldberg's has two prominent traits: she takes the set very slowly and her treatment of the contrapuntal interplay -- the voice-leading -- is remarkable. This isn't my favorite version of the Goldberg, I prefer the Glenn Gould live performance in Salzburg and the recent Murray Perahia release, but it's often beautiful and original.
Tempo: this is sensuous Bach, with pretty much all of it taken a bit slower than they traditionally are. This can lead to good things, like the bewitching Var. 13, or the Var. 26, probably my favorite version of it I have yet heard, where Dinnerstein shows excellent control of textures. But I do think Dinnerstein made a strategic error in taking the repeats, given her slow tempi (something which Gould was so smart to avoid). It elongates this already long set close to 80 minutes and works at cross-purposes to Dinnerstein's emphasis on sensuous sound and continuity (as opposed to contrast), which needs to be reasonably concise.
Voice leading: Dinnerstein's treatment of voice leading, canons and the contrapuntal interplay that is at the heart of Bach's music is astoundingly subtle and well-done. This I think is the achievement here. The quick Variation 24 is a good example, one of the livelier numbers which I think Dinnerstein does very nicely.
The disc also benefits from an outstanding recording, not surprising from Telarc, a label with a well-deserved reputation for engineering excellence. This isn't a perfect disc but it is an impressive debut from a talented artist. Forget about Oprah Winfrey's recommendation or preconceptions and just listen.