The balance between historical performance practice and my own subjective interpretation is always at the fore when I’m working on a piece of music myself, or listening to another performer. The role history and listening plays is subliminal and constant, but we can choose how much we actively engage with these ideas as performers.
Simone Dinnerstein speaks about this balance in an interview. “I didn’t become a musician to become a historian. I became a musician because the music speaks to me, today, as I am right now.” For her, historical authenticity has become a fetishizing ‘angle’ and less about the music, in the hands of some interpreters. Some musicians do consider historical performance practices to make the music come alive, and don’t think about if this is “how Bach did it.”
Rarely do I ever hear a performer discuss these matters in a way that resonates so much with me. Whether or not Dinnerstein is aware of Richard Taruskin or not, her playing embodies the ‘acts, not texts’ mantra of the quote below and to the right.
I keep coming back to comparisons between the 2 approaches suggested in my first blog post in this series. Glenn Gould searched for the structure in everything, others search for the sound. Both can be beautiful.
I have the hunch that Simone Dinnerstein focuses on the sound. First of all, her sound is beautiful and a lot of that has to do with tempo. “I find it easier to hear when I play slower and when I hear others play slower…” she said in Caroline Benser’s At the Piano. I myself have always loved slow tempos, it helps make more sense out of music by helping our ears and brains sort through and interpret the music we’re hearing in real time without being overbearing.
She must spend a lot of brain power listening. It’s so hard to control slow tempos. Given the piano’s natural decay, long lines can be lost, counterpoint obscured, harmonic structures fading into sound blobs. But Dinnerstein avoids these pitfalls. Her music sings, is at once full of direction but perfectly still, and is layered in a myriad of beautiful ways.
All of this of course lends itself well to playing Bach, a composer she is well known for playing and recording. Instead of choosing her famous Goldberg Variations (I’m trying to stay away from the expected recordings associated with most performers in this series!), I wanted to look at her “Something almost being said” album of Bach and Schubert. I had a lot of trouble deciding whether to consider her Schubert Op. 90 Impromptus, or the Bach 1st Partita, both being dream pieces of mine. Ultimately, her approach to Bach is so unique that the Partita won out.
I thought her explanation of the title of the album, and the connection between these two seemingly dissimilar composers is revealing: “Bach and Schubert, to my ears, share a distinctive quality. Their non-vocal music has a powerful narrative, a vocal element. The effect is that of wordless voices singing textless melodies. Bach and Schubert's melodic lines are so fluent, so expressive, and so minutely inflected that they sound as though they might at any moment burst suddenly into speech. They sound like something almost being said.”
It all connects, of course. Bach and Schubert both wrote extraordinary amounts of vocal music. Naturally we approach Schubert’s piano music in a vocal way, but often Bach’s keyboard music is played in a very dry way, or instrumental, or at least non-vocal. Again, you listen to someone like Gould (whose Bach I love): if structure is key, the playing is dry, it’s all about the articulation and the polyphony. Never mind those who fetishize the historical sound.
But Bach can sing in his piano music. To me it’s dying to sing. Is it logical to infuse such an intellectual composer with such expressive devices?
Dinnerstein clearly has thought through her playing. In one interview, she argues that Bach isn’t as metrical as people think. “I think musical notation is a very crude way of transcribing a musical thought.” And Bach, being so abstract, the barline can’t be rigid, one shouldn’t hear the meter.
In another interview, she compares her recording of the Bach Inventions directly to Gould’s: “I think about it as being much more legato. When I’m playing, I’m thinking a lot about breath and shape and contour.”
We hear the unique expressiveness of her playing in Bach’s first Partita. In the same interview I just mentioned above, she describes the Bb Invention, and the key in Bach’s hands in general, as warm, open and like a hug. This fit my interpretation of the Partita long before I heard her recording. I’ve always had a nostalgic love for this suite, perhaps because a good friend of mine once played it, but perhaps just because it’s the Partita most able to sing.
One thing that struck me about Dinnerstein’s performance is that it rarely sounds like a dance suite. This isn’t a bad thing, and after all, did Bach actually intend to write music to accompany a dance, or music for enjoyment (if not performance) inspired by dance? Considering her statement about meter above, it’s hardly surprising that dance would not be the first thing that comes to mind in her playing.
Consider the Prelude. The tempo is quite a bit slower than any performance I’ve heard. But she inflects the opening with so much vocal expression, stretching intervals, hesitating before the resolutions of phrases, prolonging the dissonances. The Allemande doesn’t run away from you, but it isn’t in a slow tempo either. In the Minuets, the left hand is beautiful and legato, a bona fide counter-melody, rather than an accompanimental bass broken up by articulation.
Dinnerstein plays Bach with so much beauty and vocal expression, some might dispute her interpretation as “Romantic” instead of “Baroque”. The problem here is one of historical hindsight. These labels, are always placed after the fact. And they are most often used as huge generalizations. Bach really has nothing to do with the early Baroque of Caccini, and not really anything to do with a more or less contemporary like Rameau. There are classical elements to Beethoven’s music throughout his career, but he really has little in common with early Haydn. What about the vastly different approaches of Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms, all apparently ‘romantic’ composers.
If modern ears hear Bach more ‘romantically’, so what? The question shouldn’t be ‘is it Baroque’ or ‘is it authentic’, but is it expressive? I could listen to Dinnerstein’s playing again and again and will always answer in the affirmative.
**This post contains affiliate links. While I may receive a small compensation if you purchase any of the products mentioned, the words used to promote them are completely genuine and offered regardless of any personal profit**