What to make of Simone Dinnerstein ? This once-obscure pianist burst into the spotlight five years ago, when her self-financed recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations shot to the top of the charts and made her an international superstar. But her distinctively dreamy, almost romantic approach has divided listeners into warring camps. Her devotees say her warmth and sensitivity open a unique window onto Bach, but skeptics dismiss her playing as idiosyncratic, dumbed-down and aimed, more or less, at soft-headed teenage girls.
So when Dinnerstein sat down at the piano on Sunday afternoon at The Phillips Collection for an all-Bach program, every ear in the room tilted forward to see what the fuss was about. And as the opening work — the fifth of Bach’s French Suites — unfolded, Dinnerstein’s strengths and weaknesses quickly became clear.
First, the bad — of which, unfortunately, there was plenty. The Allemande lurched clumsily out of the gate, tripping over its awkward phrasing, followed by a Courante that rushed about aimlessly, full of odd dynamics and eccentric shifts in tempo. The Sarabande was taken at such a glacial pace that Dinnerstein lost the line entirely, and the entire Suite finally just laid down, heaved a pitiful sigh and died.
It went on and on like that throughout the afternoon. Dinnerstein is undoubtedly gifted, but there was a kind of willful, adolescent intensity to her playing that took the place of real thought, and it was hard to find a solid core in anything she played. She seemed to have no use for subtlety; every musical point was spelled out in big letters and then underlined, and you were left with the sense that “meaning” was being ladled over the music like some thick, unpleasant gravy.
But for all the self-indulgence and obviousness — and this is the maddening thing about Dinnerstein’s playing — there were moments of absolutely stunning beauty, as well. They happened when the pianist reined in her personality and let the music take center stage. The Gigue of the English Suite No. 3, for instance, was exhilarating, masterfully conceived and beautifully executed, and the two Partitas were marked by brilliant counterpoint and melodies that blossomed with breathtaking grace. For all its flaws, there’s no denying the compelling warmth in Dinnerstein’s playing. It touches people deeply — and won her a heartfelt standing ovation.
Brookes is a freelance writer.