Last weekend, following a recital in Leipzig, Germany, pianist Simone Dinnerstein was taking a walk around the Thomaskirche, the church forever associated with Johann Sebastian Bach.
“I was standing outside at night, thinking about Bach and being around this square full of modern buildings,” Dinnerstein recalls. “There were a lot of drunken tourists, this kind of nightlife. In the middle, here is Bach’s church and I was thinking about how there’s something extremely funny about the fact that people nowadays obsess about how Bach would have played his own music when you just need to stand in this place and see that absolutely everything has changed.
“The church is still standing. He composed music there and it was performed there, but something about that music has transcended its age and is relevant to us now. To me, it seems like a strange exercise to want to completely recreate his world.”
This simple observation explains a lot about what makes Dinnerstein’s interpretations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, partitas, suites and concertos so compelling to so many people.
They are Bach, but they are also something totally individual, the products of a gentle, probing, determined artist.
Dinnerstein’s soft-edged view of Bach is on full display on Wednesday afternoon (Aug. 1) at St Andrew’s Church in Stratford, where she is the star performer during “Gould Week” at Stratford Summer Music.
On the programme are the first and second Partitas, the third English Suite and the fifth French Suite.
The recital begins and ends with major keys, with more dramatic minor-key pieces in the middle. “I’m drawn on a more uplifting note and starting on a more uplifting note, and has more intense music in the middle. I’m not an intellectual about these things. I think figuring out a programme is more based on feel on how the music is going to flow from one piece to the next,” Dinnerstein explains.
“For me, the French Suite has a kind of innocence about it that makes it compelling to start the programme with. The B-flat Partita also has that feeling, but also has a lot more maturity in the writing,” she says.
“To me, that first Partita is a complete jewel and leaves you feeling that there’s nothing more that can be said. It has something in common with the Goldberg Variations in that respect, that there’s a simplicity and a mystery to it at the same time.”
Dinnerstein may speak in terms of “feeling” in describing her approach to this music, placing her in opposition to the mathematical, contrapuntal mind of Glenn Gould, whose ghost continues to hover over everybody who tries to play the keyboard music of Bach.
But, in conversation yesterday, the 39-year-old New Yorker reveals some unexpected parallels with the Toronto legend in what can only be described as an obsessive attempt to translate the purity of the interpreter’s musical ideas into living sounds of music.
“I was thinking of Gould recently,” she says, of a realisation that a piece she’d been performing all season had gradually changed.
“It had turned into something else that I hadn’t wanted it to be, and I realised that it was because I was playing it in concert halls, and I was needing to project it out to the audience in a certain kind of way,” Dinnerstein recalls. “It had gradually moved away from my intentions to something that would work for the public.”
She remembers Gould talking about the same thing, “about how performing was ruining how he wanted to play.” He was referring to Partita No. 5, and how it had turned into a showpiece for him, which is not at all what he wanted to do.
“That’s the danger of performing, that you start to do that,” Dinnerstein says.
“My sense of time and pacing changes in concerts,” she elaborates. Sometimes its because she thinks her playing is not interesting enough, because she has performed a piece too often. Sometimes its because she has to fight the piano. At other times, it’s a hall with acoustics that are too reverberant.
“Things start to become slightly distorted, and it’s really hard to be objective and listen to what you’re doing and just be clear about it,” says the pianist.
Dinnerstein admires theatre actors, who perform the same play every day. “A great actor isn’t distorting their performance; they’re staying true to what they want to project, even if they’ve done it eight times that week.”
Returning to the studio last month to record a new album (something collaborative involving the music of another Canadian legend, Leonard Cohen), the pianist realised how much more comfortable she felt within those sound-insulated walls.
“I find the recording studio the most pure place for me. I just love recording because I think it’s the place where I feel closest to playing how I intend to play,” she explains.
The performer had a little epiphany at the Verbier Festival in Switzerland 10 days ago, thanks to a digital practice piano that sounded horrible over its headphones. So Dinnerstein took them off and let her fingers move over the keyboard in total silence.
“It was really fascinating because I could completely hear what I was doing in my head, and it was really great,” she says. This recalls another story about Gould, who once said he loved practising while the cleaning woman vacuumed, so that he wouldn’t be able to hear what his fingers were doing.
“I was able to imagine the sounds and the phrasing in an ideal way,” says Dinnerstein of the silent instrument. “Of course, then you need to practise on an actual piano to make sure you’re actually doing what you think you are doing. But not having to hear it is also interesting, because you can imagine things that aren’t limited by those instruments you are playing on.”
Asked about her relationship with period-performance practice, Dinnerstein says she is fascinated not by concepts of historical accuracy, but by its more flexible approach to the printed page.
“The thing that interests me about (period performers) playing is how they’re seeing the music in terms of the musical writing itself: How they’re interpreting the form of a particular movement or what the feeling of pulse is; how they feel a certain metre and the beats within that metre; at which points they improvise and a which points they do not; and how they think about line, phrasing and breathing,” she explains.
Dinnerstein translates this curiosity into her own interpretations, making them something not historical, but very much a part of the here and now. It makes her artistry all the more enticing.
For details and tickets for her 2 p.m. concert, click here.
Here are the opening Allemande and the Sarabande from Bach’s French Suite No. 5, with which Dinnerstein opens her Stratford recital: