Steve Schwartz wrote (February 4, 2008):
BACH: "Goldberg" Variations.
Simone Dinnerstein (piano).
Telarc CD-80692 Total time: 78:17
Very fine. After reading several super-laudatory reviews, including one which placed this version on the level of Gould's 1955 recording, as well as Oprah Winfrey's rave, I approached this disc thoroughly prepared to hate it. The disc's liner notes didn't help, since half of them talked about Dinnerstein's career, the piano she used, and the heroism of the wartime British, to the exclusion of the music. I understand that the Goldbergs are daunting to write about, but really! So I wasn't in the best of moods when I finally loaded the CD into my player.
Dinnerstein's account of the aria blew away the black clouds above my head, and I stopped grinding my molars. From the first phrase, I found myself in the company of a player with an elegant musical mind. She spun out the aria, lengthening phrases not quite to the snapping point, bringing subtle colorings to the music. It's almost the "pretty Bach" school of someone like András Schiff, but Dinnerstein never steps over into pure sensuality. Still, one of the reasons for playing Bach's keyboard works on the piano at all has to be the greater range of color at one's disposal, as well as the ability to sustain a longer line.
In general, Dinnerstein does better on the slower variations than on the faster ones. The recording acoustic helps her. This counts as one of the most intimate Goldbergs I've ever heard. Dinnerstein sings her Bach rather than dances to it. She's still good when she goes quickly, but I miss a certain visceral excitement. After all, Bach dances as well as sings. However, her reading of the twentieth variation (a triple-time riot) stands in notable exception to this. Her transition to the melancholy twenty-first is extremely effective.
For those who care, Dinnerstein takes some repeats and not others. It's hard to get the complete, all-repeat Goldbergs on one CD, unless you really scurry. I've read that when Dinnerstein takes all the repeats, she clocks in at ninety minutes. I can take my Goldbergs with or without repeats. It really depends on the pianist's ability to shape each variation and to stitch them together into convincing larger units. In that regard, Dinnerstein's move from the slow twenty-first variation, a canon at the seventh, to the slightly more resolute twenty-second stands out.
My favorite Goldbergs include Landowska on RCA, Gould 1955 on Sony, Tureck's first (mono) recording (not currently available), Angela Hewitt on Hyperion, and András Schiff on Decca. Where does Dinnerstein stand among them? I miss the drama and imagination of Landowska (even though at times a crazy imagination), the sheer tonal beauty and coloristic mind of Schiff, the nervous excitement and surprise of Gould, the spontaneity and variety of Hewitt, and the supreme architecture and profound balance of Tureck. Dinnerstein keeps her account admirably free from interpretive crotchets but also of insight that tells you something new about these little miracles. I would also say that she makes a fundamental mistake in the very difficult third variation, the canon at the unison, in that she fails to separate the two entrances sufficiently. Instead, she connects the opening two notes into one line, thus obscuring the canon. On the other hand, she's really good in the canon at the fourth, in which the second voice turns the first upside-down. Above all, she gives an "even" reading, avoiding extremes and vulgarities. Nevertheless, I kept hoping for at least some vulgarity, something to shake things up a little. Good taste is all very well, in its way, but there's a suggestion of the Good Girl about this reading. In general, she penetrates just slightly below an immaculate surface. Furthermore, while Dinnerstein keeps the contrapuntal strands separate (hear her Quodlibet in particular), she doesn't make the interaction among them come to life like Tureck. Under Dinnerstein's fingers, the counterpoint is usually clear; Tureck, however, makes the counterpoint exciting.
In all, I find Dinnerstein's rendition worthy, but short of the summit. You shouldn't be satisfied with one Goldberg interpretation anyway. Nevertheless, this recording is a pendant, rather than essential.