Classical CD Review: Simone Dinnerstein plays Bach and Glass and James Brawn’s Beethoven Odyssey vol. 5

Two recommended discs: James Brawn’s complete Beethoven piano sonata series continues while Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry execute Philip Glass’s chorale-like writing with remarkable fervency and warmth.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

In a sense, we’ve been here before: Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto no. 3, out in a new recording (from Orange Mountain Music) featuring pianist Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry, breaks no new ground. It’s comfortably rooted in Glass’s familiar style of layered rhythmic patterns, repeated harmonic progressions, scalar noodling, and the like. That doesn’t make it a bad piece, or an uninteresting one: just a rather stylistically routine one.

And, given the music’s expressive depths, maybe that’s a good thing. Glass’s Third Concerto is, above all, a notably reflective, even autumnal, score. The first movement, with its swirling arpeggios and wistful melodies, seems to owe a debt to the etudes of Liszt and Chopin. A similar aura pervades the second movement, with its longer-breathed lyricism and aching shifts from minor to major and back again. In the finale, Glass’s writing channels the ritualistic quality of Arvo Pärt’s and, while the movement goes on for too long, it’s got moments of genuine, touching beauty.

The recorded performance is terrific.

It should be: Glass wrote the piece for Dinnerstein and the Criers. Still, Dinnerstein’s account of the solo line could hardly be bettered. It’s tonally plush, clearly directed, and, in its subtle rhythmic shadings, keeps Glass’s undulating patterns from becoming static.

She’s helped in this by the Criers, who display a remarkable simpatico with the soloist, especially in that drawn out finale, in which the combined ensemble executes Glass’s chorale-like writing with remarkable fervency and warmth.

Filling out the album is a pert, vigorous account of Bach’s G-minor Keyboard Concerto no. 7 (itself an adaptation of the A-minor Violin Concerto). Here, the brisk outer movements really dance – Dinnerstein and the Criers achieve a conspicuous unanimity of articulation, especially in the lower registers, throughout – while the slow central one sings tenderly.

A highly recommended disc, this one.

James Brawn’s complete Beethoven piano sonata series continues after a three-year hiatus with volume 5 (on MSR Classics), featuring the three op. 10 sonatas plus op. 14 no. 2. In it, Brawn picks up right where he left off, with playing that’s tautly rhythmic and carefully attuned to the music’s various technical quirks (sudden dynamic contrasts, contrasting articulations, etc.).

In the C-minor Sonata (op. 10 no. 1), he delivers a reading that brims with raw energy – the outer movements feature some wonderfully aggressive attacks – but is also delicately shaped and warmly lyrical. The climax of the slow movement, in particular, is played with brilliant clarity, rhythmically and tonally.

Brawn’s F-major Sonata (op. 10 no. 2) is similarly vital. In fact, the first movement almost seems to be tripping along, so quickly does it move. Nothing’s out of place, though, rhythmically, either there or in the subsequent movements. The slow-ish second is suitably mysterious and shadowy, its syncopated recapitulation executed with textbook precision. And the rollicking finale’s a blast: exuberant and explosive.

As for the D-major Sonata (op. 10 no. 3), Brawn turns in a robust, glowing account of the mighty first movement, one that’s full of spirit, especially during the development’s exchange of motives between the hands. The second broods, if not quite as weightily as it might. The lilting third, though, is all elegance while the fourth ably recaptures the vim of the first.

Closing things out is a resoundingly graceful performance of the G-major Sonata (op. 14 no. 2), its first movement smooth and direct. The second, taken as a lively Andante, is plenty droll and, in the middle, a bit too straight. But the third overflows with spunk, Brawn having a blast with its jumble of hemiolas, snap-rhythms, and triplet runs.

MSR’s engineering is clear and well-balanced. The recorded sound captures the crispness of Brawn’s playing effectively: he never overuses the pedal and ably draws out the music’s textures. In all, then, this album marks a welcome return for this slightly-delayed series.

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.

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