The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: Talented pianist Simone Dinnerstein tends toward exaggeration while the Madison Symphony Orchestra displays impressive tightness | February 22, 2011

By Jacob Stockinger

Despite the weather and fear of finding no parking because of the ongoing mass protests at the state Capitol, I managed to attend Sunday’s concert by the Madison Symphony Orchestra. I just had to find out what I would hear from the sensational and best-selling pianist Simone Dinnerstein (below) in Beethoven’s famous “Emperor” Concerto.

I wasn’t disappointed. I got my answer.

The controversial Dinnerstein (below) proved to be a very talented performer who inspires over-the-top praise for the “spirituality” of her playing. Yet to my ears, I discerned a pattern in the Beethoven that helps to explain what I find disturbing about some – though by no means all — of her playing. She tends to exaggerate whatever the composer or score indicates and seems given to extremes.

As a result, I think, she often takes slow passage too slow (the opening of the second and third movements of the “Emperor”) and fast passages too fast (the loud and cascading scales, arpeggios and octaves in the first and third movements of the concerto.) I think she often mistakes slowness as bring profound and poetic, just as she mistakes very fast playing for virtuosity and drama.

Too often, for me at least, the thrill of the “Emperor” just wasn’t thrilling. And in the right hands (say, Rudolf Serkin’s or Alfred Brendel’s (see bottom) or Richard Goode’s) it can be hair-raisingly thrilling.

The truth is that Dinnerstein has a fine technique, a good musical sense and frequently a big sound. But in this “Emperor,” too often Beethoven’s penchant for repeated patterns (especially dance rhythms) in the passage work got lost; and too often uneven retards and prolonged silences interfered with the melodic line or flow of the slow passages.

Still, clearly Dinnerstein’s approach speaks to many other listeners, who gave her a standing ovation and received the opening movement of Robert Schumann’s simple but poignant “Scene of Childhood,” the “Of Foreign Lands and People” as an encore. (Personally, I wish she had played the Bach she apparently played as an encore on Friday night.)

And there were undeniable moments when she and the orchestra under John DeMain (below, in a photo by Katrin Talbot) seemed clearly in some kind of sync or mind-meld. She really nailed the difficult finale, for example, which features a big, loud and fast solo run at the end of which the piano and orchestra must hit a single chord together.

Still, I prefer more straightforward, clearer and less mannered playing. Great music often speaks well enough for itself and the “Emperor” is undoubtedly great music. The martial element can certainly be overdone, I suppose; but now I have also learned that it can be underdone. Such an extroverted piece simply deserves more extroverted playing.

The opening “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 5” by Sir Edward Elgar (below), is not the strongest of the set, but it proved a fine curtain-raiser, especially with its stately middle theme. And it served as a good reminder of how differently English, German and Russian composers see the role of music in an imperial or wartime culture.

To my ears, the most impressive playing of the afternoon came in the least appealing piece: the Fifth Symphony of Prokofiev. Indeed I found the playing much more impressive than the piece. True, it is grand and impressive work that spotlights many of Prokofiev’s skills for melody, harmony and especially orchestral color. Still, I find that is less accessible and less interesting or engaging than, say, some piano and violin concertos or the ballet suites by Prokofiev (below).

But the MSO played this wartime symphony with all the uptempo ferocity it deserved. Especially notable were the brass and the percussion sections, although the winds and strings were also strenuously tested and passed with flying colors. And to play with such clarity and precision while playing fast and loud is not easy.

The atmospherics were astonishing and the tightness of the ensemble playing was what got the audience to jump to its feet, I think, more than the music itself, which is very good but not great, at least not to my ears. Prokofiev composed better. See for yourself:

There were plenty of empty seats, no doubt because of the same weather and parking concerns I had. But it was surprising that the hall was as full as it was, and the smaller audience made up for its size with enthusiasm.

I’ll add simply, too, that this was an extremely well planned program that showed cohesion and unity. I just couldn’t help thinking that at the end I’d rather have heard the Shostakovich Fifth than the Prokofiev Fifth.

Care to compare reviews? Here is John W. Barker’s review for Isthmus:

What did you think of Simone Dinnerstein and her “Emperor”?

Of the Prokofiev Fifth?

Of the whole program?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music


  1. Too slow

    Comment by David Lewis — June 15, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

    • Hi David,
      I too find that Dinnerstein often plays things too slowly.
      I think I said in a review that she confuses slowness with profundity or thoughtfulness.
      Sometimes it works, but often it doesn’t.

      Comment by welltemperedear — June 15, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

  2. Agreed! And, I would have loved to hear the Shostakovich 5th. He is one of my favorite composers. I am always mesmerized when I listen to this piece.

    Comment by Barbara DeMain — February 22, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    • Hi Barbara,
      I’m pleased you concur. Shostakovich is indeed a great composer and the Fifth Symphony is one of the very greatest symphonies of the 20th century and of all time.
      Plus what a way to end a concert!.
      But the Prokofiev Fifth blazed to a great finale too.
      I always think of Prokofiev as the Russian Mozart and Shostakovich as the Russian Beethoven. It has to do with clarity and precision, with texture and color, with melodic line and harmonic density, ultimately with light versus dark.
      But it is great to hear both composers done as well as the MSO and John do them.
      PS: I corrected the misspelling, so I also took down your own correction. Sometimes our fingers just aren’t as fast as our thoughts. Happens to us all.
      Especially with Russian names.
      Is it Rachmaninov or Rachmaninoff?
      Tchaikovsky or Tchaikowsky?
      I see it both ways and know that the rules for transliterating change (Beijing versus Peking).
      But Cole Porter notwithstanding, let’s not call the whole thing off.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 22, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

  3. thanks for the thoughtful review of Simone Dinnerstein–i was very curious about what she would do with the Emperor–to me, about the most perfect concerto ever written–and you explained it very well–some fine moments, and reservations about the tempo and the mannerisms–i also think Serkin and Brendel are the baseline interpretations–haven’t heard Richard Goode, but I have been listening to his Partitas in the car recently . . .

    Comment by Mary Gordon — February 22, 2011 @ 10:38 am

    • Hi Mary,
      Thanks for reading and then writing your thoughtful reply.
      I like the Emperor but think the Beethoven Fourth is about the most perfect piano concerto ever written — and is probably more suited to Dinnerstein’s personality and aesthetic.
      Trust me, Goode’s Emperor is terrific. I also love his Bach Partitas, both volumes. and listen to them constantly. His Bach playing is great and I hope he goes on to do the French and English suites as well as the Well-Tempered Clavier Books I and 2.
      He did a wonderful Carnegie recital last year that alternated between Bach and Chopin.
      It was terrific programming, though I didn’t get to hear it. I just wish they would let him record it. Bach was a god to Chopin.
      Richard Goode is one of the rare musicians who seems to totally inhabit whatever composer he plays. When he plays Schubert, he sounds like a natural Schubert player. Same for his Beethoven and Mozart.
      I’m glad we agree about Dinnerstein’s approach. I hope she modifies the tendency to go to extremes as she matures.
      Thanks again for being a loyal fan of the blog.

      Comment by welltemperedear — February 22, 2011 @ 11:06 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,245 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,211,241 hits
%d bloggers like this: