Whether pianist Simone Dinnerstein has cultivated a specialty or is limiting herself depends on one’s perspective.
This distinctive artist is sometimes in danger of overloading her programs with lyrical, deeply introspective works within a fairly narrow range. A presentation of the Washington Performing Arts Society, her recital program Sunday at the Music Center at Strathmore was disturbingly similar in mood to the one she gave last season: both hewing to mainstream classics, particularly Bach and Schumann, and focusing on pieces at the gentler end of the spectrum.
Dinnerstein, a deeply musical player, can mesmerize audiences. Her interpretations come from intrinsic communion with the composer, without any pianistic showmanship. At her best, she marries pristine textual reading with a glimpse of the hereafter, and she can make you catch your breath at the beauty of this or that phrase. But her programming choices raise the question of her range as an artist; I know of no pianist who was able to sustain a major career with such a restricted repertoire.
It’s not just the mainstream Bach-through-Brahms parameter but also the selections within each composer’s oeuvre. Through two programs of complex, difficult music, Dinnerstein barely missed a note, sometimes startled with her fleet tempos and exhibited absolute control of the keyboard. But conspicuously absent from her repertoire are the athletic virtuoso works, from the classics or elsewhere. Forget Rachmaninoff, Liszt or Ravel — what about the Schumann “Fantasie,” the Chopin etudes, the Brahms F minor sonata or the “Paganini Variations,” or the Beethoven “Appassionata”?
Instead, Dinnerstein offered the first two Bach Partitas (with every repeat and nary an ornament), the Schumann “Kinderszenen” and an inexplicable three-part opening set, played without pause, where a Chopin nocturne and a Brahms intermezzo surrounded a paraphrase of a pop song (Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”) by Daniel Felsenfeld. Never was an otherwise inoffensive trifle deliberately set off at such a disadvantage. I thought Dinnerstein’s inclusion of several cheesy romantic Bach chorale arrangements last year was odd, but this was truly head-scratching.
The artist made her first big professional splash with a highly original interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” and Bach continues to be central focus of her programs. Again, her rapt concentration and richly lyrical playing pay frequent dividends, though with her musical imagination, a bit of variety on repeats would be welcome. Next to the iconic Glenn Gould, she is almost a reactionary; where he drives forward, she spreads out, mining every expressive detail. While her ornaments sometimes sounded lumpy, the clarity in the faster movements (particularly the “Courante” of No. 1 and the “Capriccio” of No. 2) was exhilarating. In the Schumann, Dinnerstein artfully drew the quicksilver changes of mood and was especially attuned to the wistfulness and dark poignancy that underlies these seemingly innocent miniatures.
I could listen to Dinnerstein play all night, but I hope her next appearance here will bring more breadth and risk-taking.