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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Barricades of Mystery

PIANIST SIMONE DINNERSTEIN set the stage well before she entered. Her piano sat on a darkened stage at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, with candles flickering on the soundboard and floor. The program notes – and you really have to read such things at an event like this – promised an intermission-free concert the components of which were organized into two sets, with applause requested only after each set.

 Simone Dinnerstein | photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco
And then there were the sets. It was one of the most creative and satisfying arrays of pieces I’ve ever enjoyed in concert, each juxtaposition as powerful as the pieces themselves. The house was almost full on this cold, cold night. Dinnerstein swept in, acknowledged her greeting, and set to work, opening with one of the more overplayed and under-understood works in the repertory: François Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mystérieuses.” Written for harpsichord, it has traveled to many other instruments and feels very at home on the piano.

It’s a haunting, recursive work. As Tom Service wrote a few years ago in The Guardian, “The four parts create an ever-changing tapestry of melody and harmony, interacting and overlapping with different rhythmic schemes and melodies. The effect is shimmering, kaleidoscopic and seductive ... ” The lavish romanticism Dinnerstein imbued may send Baroque specialists screaming back to their cells, but it made great sense in the context of what followed: Schumann’s Arabesque, Op. 18, another work that conveys a sense of yearning. Its left-hand figurations seemed to pick up where Couperin’s left off, but in a voice that had harmonically advanced by a century. Like the Couperin piece, it’s in the form of a rondo, but its other-than-A sections are more obviously emotionally ravaged. Which is not surprising, coming from Schumann, who wore his heart on his keyboard.

Philip Glass wrote “Mad Rush,” which followed, 40 years earlier – and for a premiere a scant few blocks away, at the organ of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He re-worked the piece for piano, allowing it to take whatever time is desired in performance. It usually clocks in at about fifteen minutes, and thus it was as Dinnerstein eased into what’s essentially another rondo, but one that’s more recursive still, thus resonating all the more with the Couperin. If the opening work was hypnotic, “Mad Rush” proved transformational in the way that meditation can encourage. And its trademark repetitiveness was picked up by Couperin all over again, as the first set ended with another work by the Baroque master, this one the even-more-oddly monikered “Le Tic-Toc-Choc, ou les Maillotins.”

Much mangled in its travels from manuscript to printed score, when treated correctly, as Dinnerstein presents this piece, it makes an eccentric dance out of its brief, evocative ostinato. And it brought the first set to a surprisingly breezy finish. By this time, the single spot that had illuminated her at the start had been joined by a few other fixtures, a subtle gradation that would fade back to the lone spot by the concert’s end.

The big piece for set two was Schumann’s Kreisleriana, but it, too, had a companion: Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 3. There’s a sense of movement just short of stumbling in the opening bars, as repeated pairs of eight notes wander the staves over an inflexible rhythm emphasizing the second beat of a four-beat bar (if you wish to impose the metric structure that Satie avoided). The middle section presents an up-and-down flow along the unique six-note scale the composer invented, a scale that points only half-heartedly to a home-key sense. What a prelude to the explosive opening of the Schumann work! Kreisleriana takes off with a passionate flurry, and leads us through eight episodes along a journey of character discovery in which the composer portrayed his own easily changing, wide-ranging moods through a salute to a character created by E.T.A. Hoffmann.

Hoffmann (he’s the Hoffmann of “Tales of”) placed the character of conductor Johannes Kreisler in three novels that Schumann adored, seeing in him a poignant parallel to the composer’s own difficult relationship with society. Kreisleriana is about love, of course, because Schumann was obsessed at the time with the woman who, two years later, would become his wife. It’s a piece that travels considerably through its half-hour of length, winding through different keys and structures as it sounds its many moods – and throws the performer a seemingly endless stream of interpretive and technical challenges.

Its moods resonated with the moods that had come before, although the Schumann work laid bare some of the emotions that earlier had only been suggested. Where Couperin and Satie said, “I’m ambiguous – explore me,” Schumann demanded that you laugh or cry – or both. And then question why you felt that way when this thing now was happening. Glass said, “Come along and ride with me on this crazy train”; Schumann said, “You’re my passenger now and you’re not getting off till I let you!”

And when he did, to a deserved ovation, Dinnerstein did the only thing possible after this remarkable switchback journey: she started it again, playing once more  “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” but leaving it to us where to take the journey next.

An Evening with Simone Dinnerstein
Miller Theatre
Columbia University, 8 December 2018

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