Deny it if you can — the pianist Simone Dinnerstein has a way with Bach. Her poetic, almost intimate interpretation of the Goldberg Variations shot her to prominence in 2007, and she has just released a disc of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions and Sinfonias to critical acclaim.
So expectations were high on Sunday when Dinnerstein brought the 15 Inventions to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall — and her Bach was, in fact, often quite striking. But it may have been two more modern works on the program that really made the ears sit up and pay attention.
The Two-Part Inventions are little miracles of counterpoint, written as teaching exercises but no less nuanced, multifaceted and rewarding because of it. Dinnerstein approached them confidently, at times even a bit brashly, highlighting the contrasts among them while knitting them into a coherent whole. But she never seemed to sink entirely into the music, and the results seesawed from beguiling (that lovely first Invention) and exalting (the warm, delicate fourth), to rushed and almost wooden (a dutiful sixth, a tangled seventh, a glittery and technically insecure eighth). By the end, despite moments of great beauty, it was hard to tell what Dinnerstein was after, exactly; and, given her usual insights into Bach, hard not to feel a bit disappointed.
Far more interesting, to these ears, was the opening work, “You Can’t Get There From Here,” by the gifted young composer Nico Muhly. A sort of meditation on memory, it draws on the Renaissance-era Fitzwilliam Virginal Book for musical ideas, alternating calm, pensive sections with others of sheer brute force. Dinnerstein premiered the work in 2012 and gets it to its bones, and over its 20-minute length she built it into a work of stately, almost majestic grandeur in a deeply impressive performance.
It was an ambitious program, and Dinnerstein closed it with one of the weightiest works in the repertoire — Beethoven’s Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111, whose fiery Maestoso was delivered close to room temperature but whose complex Arietta (the real heart of the work) was well thought-through and deeply involving. But the most instantly likable work of the afternoon may have been George Crumb’s 2002 “Eine Kleine Mitternachtmusik” (A Little Midnight Music). Built loosely on Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” it calls on the pianist to scrape the strings, play the soundboard like a percussion instrument and even vocalize, painting a nocturnal landscape of shadows, ritual and strange mysteries. Dinnerstein handled it all with aplomb — and a fine imaginative touch.
Brookes is a freelance writer.