Dinnerstein Probes Depths Of Stillness In Schubert, Glass

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Simone Dinnerstein plays works by Glass and Schubert on her new recording.

A Character of Quiet: Works by Glass and Schubert. Simone Dinnerstein, piano. Orange Mountain Music OMM0147. Total Time: 71:44.

DIGITAL REVIEW – When the coronavirus ruptured the peace of life, American pianist Simone Dinnerstein closed the lid on her piano. Instead of her familiar routine of six hours of practice, she turned to the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth for inspiration and found rejuvenation through walks in the verdant Green-Wood Cemetery near her home in Brooklyn, NY. She returned to her practice in June, and thanks to the urging of her longtime producer, Adam Abeshouse, a new recording for Orange Mountain Music emerged. Dinnerstein’s hibernation was rewarded. A Character of Quiet is an album of disturbing beauty.

The title and leitmotif of Dinnerstein’s recording are borne from Wordsworth’s autobiographical poem The Prelude. Through three Études by Philip Glass and Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat major, Dinnerstein channels the essence of Wordsworth’s contemplation: “a character of quiet is more profound than pathless waste.” From the first whispered bassline of Glass’ enigmatic Étude No. 16 to her assertive articulation of the trills in the opening movement of the B-flat Sonata, Dinnerstein’s aural portrait of Wordsworth’s intentions evolves as a chronicle of the state of quiet in this potent moment in history.

Dinnerstein asks – no, implores – us to listen in. Listen in to the quiet, listen in to this time. She seems to be asking us to go beyond the music. She wants us to discover the power of quiet, in all its transformative qualities: its dissonance, its pain, its affirmations, and its restorations.

The album unfolds as a cinematic experience. Dinnerstein creates narratives on every track, probing her persona of quiet as a camera zooming in on a protagonist.

The riveting quality of Dinnerstein’s album begins with Glass. She transforms the composer’s primary colors and minimalist material into poetic heights. We know that Glass wrote his etudes ­– over a period of 20 years – as a pedagogical tool to improve his piano technique, and also that the ordering of the compositions across the two volumes was determined by the music itself. With Dinnerstein, we hear motives that we seem to have not heard before.

Her interpretations emerge as a transcription of a dream. The opening bass line of the No. 16 Étude develops by stealth. Here, the zooming quality of the camera lens in the credits of a movie comes to mind most powerfully. The groupings of the 7/8 melody are articulated with a cool calm, offering a metronomic stability that belies the asymmetrical time signature. This approach permits Dinnerstein to float the right-hand melodies, allowing a mesmeric feeling to materialize. We are captured in a trance-like state.

Dinnerstein triggers our emotions with her processing of the understated harmonic changes. She filters in hair-breadth hesitations before each modulation. With these respiratory intakes and the organic rising and falling dynamics of the phrases, together with her unobtrusive delicate half-staccato lifts, the pianist creates a vocalise experience.

In the sixth etude, Dinnerstein apprehends the score with a passionate embrace. She pounces on the repeated notes with an insistent knocking yet ebb and flow quality with an emotional force so declamatory and so compelling that the moment is overwhelming. We are stopped in our tracks by the forward driving propulsion. This is full-blooded drama.

Of the three, Étude No. 2 emerges as the most ruminative. Dinnerstein states the simple pitch contours and short-utterance melodies with a probing approach. The opening statements receive stammering treatment. This halting delivery eventually finds a lullaby-like motion. There is a sense of resignation and surrender

Largely because of the naive nature of Glass’ scores, Dinnerstein’s interpretations of the etudes transpire as an open invitation that leaves enough space for the listener to contribute a personal scenario or subtext.

The choice of Schubert’s final piano sonata – written during the gloomy and pain-ridden days at the end of his life – speaks closely to the experience of the forced isolation invoked by the pandemic and, indeed, to the physical pain suffered by many who have died from the virus. While the B-flat major Sonata, D. 960, might be construed as biographical portrait, the heart of its harmonic and melodic intentions is full of light and promise. Dinnerstein optimizes this sense of hope with her lightness of touch and her judicious tempo choices throughout. In the Glass, Dinnerstein leaned toward a romantic reading, but in the Schubert she brings a more prosaic approach, letting the composer speak more candidly for himself. There is less imposition here, and the sound production favors clarity and precision. Overall, Dinnerstein invokes a maximum of depth of emotion with a minimum of layering.

Her approach to dynamics is more provocative. The pianissimo markings are elevated to a higher level. Then there is her curious handling of the trill in the opening Molto moderato. There is nothing lackadaisical ever about Dinnerstein’s playing, but the normally more subterranean sounding trill is articulated not only awkwardly and almost clumsily but rather aggressively. Perhaps the intention here is to remind listeners of the hostility and pain of Schubert’s syphilitic condition intruding on his life. But this point is a minor quibble in an interpretation that underscores lyricism. Dinnerstein brings various moods to Schubert’s lyrical meanderings. In the frothy scherzo, she achieves a pirouetting tripping quality, as if all her notes are perched on their tippy-toes, and in the final Allegro non troppo, the melodies are nimble and agile.

Dinnerstein’s ability to suffuse the Schubert with such shards of hope fittingly ends an album that speaks to the emotions of our times and our confrontations with ourselves, offering a journey of introspection and purpose.

Xenia Hanusiak is a New York-based writer, festival director, and scholar whose writing has appeared in London’s Financial Times, Music and Literature, National Sawdust’s Log Journal, and the New York Times. She is an advocate for contemporary music and cultural diplomacy.  www.xeniahanusiak.com.