Pianist Simone Dinnerstein’s new album, Broadway-Lafayette, features her on three pieces, all written since 1924, that celebrate musical ties between France and the United States.
By Jonathan Blumhofer
Thus far, pianist Simone Dinnerstein has mostly made a name for herself performing and recording (often very well) music by composers like J. S. Bach and Franz Schubert. Her new album from Sony Classical, Broadway-Lafayette, branches out from there a bit, with three pieces, all written since 1924, that celebrate musical ties between France and the United States.
There may be no particular occasion to commemorate the association, but one doesn’t need any excuse to indulge in Ravel’s marvelous Piano Concerto in G major. Dinnerstein approaches the piece – especially the wondrously flowing second movement – like she does her Bach: with clarity, precision, and emotional intensity. It’s an altogether satisfying performance, even if it doesn’t always match the electricity of Argerich or the sheer brio of Bernstein. Kristjan Järvi directs the MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra in a colorful, rhythmically alert accompaniment.
Philip Lasser’s piano concerto, The Circle and the Child, is a quiet, gentle addition to the keyboard canon. He takes a Bach chorale – “Ihr Gestirn,’ ihr hohen Lüften” – as its basis. A scale found in the midst of Bach’s harmonization of that chorale exercises a kind of gravitational pull throughout Lasser’s concerto. This relationship is most clear in the first movement, which bustles the most of the three. The slow central one features some dusky, pungent, Ravel-esque sonorities, while the finale returns to the brighter mood of the opening movement.
Dinnerstein’s introductory liner note mentions that The Circle is “challenging” to play, though it certainly sounds like one of the less overtly virtuosic concerti of recent years. Perhaps that’s partly because she plays it so well. Dinnerstein lavishes obvious love and care on the piece – textures are as clear and balanced here as when she plays the knottiest Bach or Schumann – and she is generously supported throughout by Järvi and the orchestra.
I did miss, to a point, the in-your-face punchiness of recent piano concerti by composers like Harrison Birtwistle and James MacMillan. Still, with The Circle and the Child Lasser has written a concerto that is both musically upstanding and, a few dry patches notwithstanding, engaging to the ear. If it’s largely inoffensive, at least it does those things well – and they’re both characteristics that are much harder to pull of than they may seem to be.
Dinnerstein’s account of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is certainly played well, too, even if it’s not the bluesiest Rhapsody on disc: she nails all of its glittery passagework with ease and color. Both pianist and orchestra try to capture Gershwin’s jazzy swing; the latter succeeds a bit more, but both still come off sounding more stiff than not. That said, this isn’t an unenjoyable Rhapsody, but it did leave me wishing that Dinnerstein had tried her hand at something like the Variations on “I Got Rhythm” or the lesser-known Second Rhapsody to fill out the album. Those pieces might have been more forgiving and, more importantly, can use a champion of her caliber. Maybe next time.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.