Pianist Simone Dinnerstein returned on Monday to the place where her
odyssey began: Philadelphia's Astral Artists, a service organization that helps post-conservatory musicians make The Next Move.
Though talented and ambitious, Dinnerstein just wasn't the piano competition type, didn't have the kind of influential teacher who can make magic phone calls, but found a sponsor, about five years ago, willing to finance what she most wanted to record: Bach's Goldberg Variations.
Thanks to a first-class production effort, the results were ready to be released. Dinnerstein shopped around this audacious debut calling card at length (even dreaming of seeing it sold at Starbucks), and ultimately landed the Telarc label. The disc became a best seller, leading to her current contract with Sony Classical.
In the meantime, she turned out to be an even more distinguished Beethoven interpreter, which is perhaps why her performance Monday of the Goldbergs, a benefit for Astral at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square, seemed more like a rerun - and a welcome one - than an advancement over past Goldberg encounters.
There were signs of greater maturity, but mostly under the surface: Dinnerstein anchored this 70-minute span of 30 variations with the periodic descent into minor keys, giving such passages a weight that felt like signposts while creating a contrast that subtly redefined what came before. Even smarter, she paused at various points to sip water.
Her playing - mainly her digital precision - showed more Glenn Gould influence than before. And while previous performances were more about showing her heart than her fingers, the fingers and brain were definitely the thing Monday (another Gouldian characteristic), offering a different kind of pleasure in some cases, but (more often) seeming unengaged. This greater contrapuntal clarity, luckily, didn't detract from what has been the hallmark of her Goldbergs: finding harmonic colors in places where the individual lines mesh and mining them for all their emotional potential. The minor-key variations, in particular, took on existential weight, aided by her brand of dramatic rhetoric.
Some of the more dense variations, whose ideas can seem to crowd each other, were combed out by Dinnerstein thanks to deliberate tempos, gracefully rounded phrasing, and an everybody-waits-his-turn sense of pacing. In the home stretch of the piece, Dinnerstein wasn't above showing off her chops a bit with plenty of encouragement from the music. This time, she was more interested in showing the ideas behind the hectic welter of notes. All good things. But I hope that she doesn't become so typecast with this repertoire that she can't let it lie fallow more than just the next few years.