Friday, April 27, 2018

Running in exalted circles: J.S. Bach and Philip Glass concertos by Simone Dinnerstein

Philip Glass has expressed his affinity for J.S. Bach in no uncertain terms to Terry Gross on "Fresh Air," and the use of repetitive structures indeed connects both composers over a two-and-a-half-century span.

Simone Dinnerstein plays the concerto for Philip Glass.
"Circles" subjects both men to the artistic vision of Simone Dinnerstein, already celebrated for her performances of Bach since her 2007 recording of the Goldberg Variations shot to the top of the classical charts. Some critical cavils at her style as being too soft, too neatly rounded, even somewhat salon-ish don't register with me.

She is among many pianists to go in a different direction with Bach than Glenn Gould's signature digging in (representative in the Goldbergs of 1955 and 1981). The new release (Orange Mountain Music) brings her together with the Boston chamber orchestra A Far Cry, and their rapport is evident not only in Bach's Keyboard Concerto No. 7 in G minor, BWV 1058, but also in the work Glass wrote for her, Piano Concerto No. 3.

Not much needs to be said about the Bach, except that it shows the simpatico partnership of soloist and ensemble. The keyboard's synchronization with the orchestra in the tutti textures is perfect, and the soloist stands out just enough when the keyboard is in contrast to the ensemble. The impression isn't left that such passages need to be enunciated all the more just because the keyboard becomes individualistic.

This embedded feeling extends to Glass' work. Glass' writing particularly suits Dinnerstein's seemingly effortless tone and the panache of her phrasing. After the dreamy solo piano at the start of the first movement, the tendency of latter-day Glass to be more chromatic and dynamically variegated shows up. Continuing his signature stand against modernism, the music forthrightly restores pulse and phrasing to concert music in a manner that made "minimalism" welcome to many who never got used to post-Webern asperities.

In the second movement, arpeggiation is characteristic of the material, and the atmosphere takes on a mysterious cast. A contemplative feeling is unabashed, and the listener becomes aware that Glass repays close listening; a deepening of the emotional pull he can summon up is evident.

The finale favors downward movement and an anchoring toward the piano's low register. The orchestra becomes sentimental, playing short, billowing phrases that are subtly linked. The spiritual weight of the concerto is reflected here in the movement's dedication to Arvo Pärt.

Admittedly, my old problem with Glass — when you see what he's up to, how do you decide if the piece is going on too long? — re-emerged in the course of a couple of listenings. The descending figure that puts its stamp on the music, usually about five notes long, seems reluctant to retire from the scene. When it does, the piece ends.

The mischievous question arises: Wouldn't I have found this just as moving if it had ended five minutes earlier? I suppose different degrees of attentiveness to what Glass is about determine just how suitable the concerto seems to its length every time a listener engages with it. Nearly 14 minutes for the finale will sometimes seem just right, sometimes a bit tedious. Like Milton's "Paradise Lost" in Samuel Johnson's famous pronouncement, it's likely no one will wish it longer.