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Simone Dinnerstein: The Shifting Sounds Of J.S. Bach

Johann Sebastian Bach's music is known for its symmetrical structure and mathematical patterns. But pianist Simone Dinnersteinthinks Bach's deviations from those patterns are what make the music so compelling.

Her new album, Bach: A Strange Beauty, highlights the constantly changing nature of Bach's keyboard music. Dinnerstein tells All Things Considered host Robert Siegel that Bach never focuses on a single voice for long.

"Sometimes you hear the melody as being the dominant part, but then an inner voice within a chord, or a bass note, takes precedence," Dinnerstein says. "It's always shifting."

The first track on the new album, "Ich Ruf Zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ" (I call to thee, Lord Jesus Christ), began as part of a cantata. Bach wrote an improvisation on it for organ, and in 1902, the Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni transcribed it for piano.

"When I played this piece, I was thinking very much about the sound of an organ in a cathedral," Dinnerstein says.

Ich Ruf Zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ (arr. Busoni)

The music may look simple at times, but playing it can be complicated. Dinnerstein has cultivated her own particular sound, which is different from how most people are accustomed to hearing Bach.

"I like a sound that doesn't have attack in it, that's not about the hammers hitting the strings or the force of my arms and my fingers hitting the keys," she says. "And even when I'm making a big sound, I want it to expand; to fill the space."

It might seem to approach a Romantic sound at times, but Dinnerstein says she doesn't think of it that way.

"I wouldn't say I think of Bach's music as being Romantic," she says. "But it's very expressive, and very soulful."

Dinnerstein brings this attitude to the orchestral pieces on the album, too. She says the driving tempo in the first movement of the Concerto No. 1 In D Minor can sound static.

"It can sound like it's on a click track," Dinnerstein says. "When you record for movies, they put on a click track that keeps the beat. And I don't feel that music at all like this. It doesn't stay at one tempo."

Orchestras, she says, aren't used to thinking about Bach like this — but the Kammerorchester Staatskapelle Berlin took the right approach.

"I felt that we successfully captured the thing I had in my head," Dinnerstein says. "It's very much a dialogue between the keyboard and the orchestra."

Some listeners might detect a hint of the jazz vocabulary in the way Dinnerstein talks about her performance style. She says classical musicians can learn something from the jazz world.

"As a classical musician, I was brought up to have the utmost respect for tradition and for being really observant," she says. "Those things are important, but I think getting away from that is also important."

Some might question whether such an interpretation is in line with what Bach had in mind when he wrote the piece. But Dinnerstein says Bach's opinion isn't her first consideration.

"I'm living in a completely different time than Bach," she says. "I'm not playing the music because I wanted to faithfully re-create what Bach thought. I'm playing the music because elements of that music speak to me now in the present day.

"The fact that I've heard pop, jazz, rock and folk, and also Romantic interpretations of Baroque music means that I have a wealth of ideas and sounds that simply didn't exist in Bach's time."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff