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Bach Sonatas

“I’ve talked to music scholars, jazz musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and even rabbis—a wide range of people. And Bach’s music speaks to them. It speaks to the very deep and mysterious part of everyone.” —Simone Dinnerstein

Pianist Simone Dinnerstein is a gracious and thoughtful interview subject, the kind of person with whom you look forward to speaking because of the potential for meaningful dialogue and her utter lack of pretension. When I called her to talk about Bach from the Piano, the three-concert series she curated for Miller Theatre this winter, Dinnerstein was congenial, but prefaced our conversation with something of a warning. “I’m not a historian,” she said bluntly. “And I didn’t put these programs together based on any historical research or theories.”

I wasn’t surprised. When I’d talked to Dinnerstein about the single program she performed at Miller a year ago, an imaginative mix of works by François Couperin, Robert Schumann, Erik Satie, and Philip Glass, she’d demurred, for example, on the particulars of Couperin’s Baroque-harpsichord treatise and Schumann’s notable Romantic angst, preferring to talk instead about Glass, a contemporary composer who she knows personally. (Dinnerstein had recently toured his Piano Concerto No. 3, written for her as a co-commission from twelve different orchestras, giving its New York premiere here at Miller Theatre.)

This year, when I asked her what we might learn about the Baroque form of the sonata through the repertoire on the first Bach concert she programed for the series, she met my question with a flat reply and a hearty chuckle. “Well, you might find something to say something about that,” she said, “but it’s not what I was thinking about.”

The music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)—quite possibly the greatest composer in the Western art music tradition, the most renowned keyboard player of his day, and, by all accounts, an extraordinary improviser—originated some 300 years in the past. It is nearly impossible to speak about him without engaging deeply in music history—or so my inner musicologist would once have argued.

Starting with the work of his biographer Julius August Philipp Spitta (1841–1894), if not earlier with the revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion by Felix Mendelssohn in 1829, much of the discipline of musicology developed in order to engage with Bach as a historical subject: studying manuscript sources to produce critical editions of his music, and unearthing documents that contribute to our understanding of his biography. Throughout the 20th Century, scholar-musicians have made it their life’s work to reconstruct his music through historically informed performance on period instruments, an approach initially applied to works of the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods, then gradually extended to the Classical and Romantic eras. A fervor for charismatic and highly skilled performers such as Jordi Savall, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and Sir Roger Norrington in the 1980s and ‘90s demonstrated that the quest for authenticity was not limited to wonky academic exercises, but could be trendy, driving popular demand among classical music enthusiasts.

With this wealth of accumulated knowledge on Bach—and, frankly, the zealotry that sometimes accompanies it—one might be tempted to judge unfavorably any musician who neglects even a kernel of information, let alone someone with an unorthodox approach. (Case in point: I remember a performance practice course I took at the Eastman School of Music in the 1990s, during which our instructor played the venerated 1955 Glenn Gould recording of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The example was so contrary to our way of thinking that the room spontaneously burst into laughter, deeming it absurd.)

“I’ve definitely been accused of anti-intellectualism,” says Dinnerstein. “Maybe it’s true. I don’t know. But that’s not why I’m playing. I’m not playing the piano to make a point; I’m playing it to make music.

“For instance,” she continues, “I think that Jordi Savall is an extraordinary musician, and I love listening to everything that he does. But it’s speaking to me in an aesthetic and emotional way. I’m not thinking about whether or not his ornamentation is correct. Maybe someone would say that it sounds beautiful because he’s playing it the way it would have been played, but that’s not how I hear it.

"The tension for me is between the music being an art form living in the present and trying to recreate something that comes from the past." —Simone Dinnerstein

“I also love listening to Myra Hess,” she adds, referring to the British pianist, whose Bach interpretations and transcriptions were esteemed during the first half of the 20th Century. “And I don’t think that there was anything historically correct about how she was playing.”

Could it be that Dinnerstein’s rise over the past decade is evidence that the pendulum has begun to swing the other way, returning Bach to those individual musicians confident in their aesthetic liberty, and with a less historically specific vision of what his music should be?

Dinnerstein first made her mark with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the imposing repertoire for her debut recording and one that seemed to come out of nowhere. Yes, she was a Juilliard graduate with a solid resume, but, by all accounts, her career had stalled. When she learned she was pregnant in 2001, she set out to master the Goldbergs before the baby arrived, a monumental task. She eventually raised the money to produce her own recording, a risky move that paid off, landing her a Weill Recital Hall debut, a manager, and a label. In 2007, that recording topped the Billboard Classical Chart in its first week of sales.

As Anne Midgette wrote for The New York Times, “It is a distinctive approach to the work: colorful and idiosyncratic, a contemporary pianist’s rather than a harpsichordist’s account. It starts with a long, thoughtful, hesitant Aria that seems to be struggling to lift itself uncertainly out of silence.”

Dinnerstein’s approach is also full of intention, grounded in her deep reading of musical structures and the desire to communicate with incredible clarity, no matter the composer or the stylistic period. “I would probably say the same things to you if we were talking about Schumann or Copland,” she says. “The tension for me is between the music being an art form living in the present and trying to recreate something that comes from the past. That’s still a big argument in music today, much more than it was in the 1950s or ‘60s. Because if you listen to different pianists playing Bach from that period of time, there was a very wide range of approaches, whereas the people playing today tend to have a much more uniform approach.”

* * * *

The same kind of devotion to making music that lives in the present guides Dinnerstein’s new venture: Baroklyn, an eleven-member string ensemble that she leads from the piano. The group debuted at Miller Theatre in 2017. Joined on Bach from the Piano this year by a handful of select principal musicians on violin, cello, flute, oboe, and voice, Baroklyn offers the pianist an alternative to performing Bach as a solitary pursuit.

“When I’m playing his music by myself,” explains Dinnerstein, “I hear the sounds of different instruments. I’m juggling many voices and many personalities. What really appeals to me about leading an ensemble is hearing those sounds being played by different instruments in reality.”

Dinnerstein built the series with Miller Theatre’s Executive Director Melissa Smey around the group’s instrumentation, presenting a program of Bach Sonatas (January 30), Bach Concertos (February 13), and the Bach Collection (March 12), which brings together a handful of his most celebrated works.

A prolific composer, Bach served as the Cantor of the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig (1723-50), contributing over 200 cantatas to mark the Lutheran liturgical calendar. Although some of the works featured in Dinnerstein’s performances with Baroklyn belong to that sacred context, including one exceptionally poignant cantata, Ich habe genug, featured on the Bach Collection, the majority were played by members of the Collegium Musicum, an instrumental ensemble whose directorship Bach assumed from 1729-39, despite an abundance of other responsibilities.

Drawing on professional musicians and highly accomplished university students, the Collegium Musicum gave ‘ordinaire’ concerts weekly, and ‘extraordinaire’ concerts for special occasions in the lively atmosphere of Zimmerman’s coffeehouse (inspiring Bach to write, among other things, a ‘coffee cantata’). Not only did they perform music by Bach, but by other renowned composers of the day, including Georg Friedrich Handel and Georg Philipp Telemann. According to Bach’s son, composer C.P.E. Bach, it was “seldom that a musical master passed through without getting to know my father and playing for him.” The group unquestionably fueled Leipzig’s vibrant cultural scene, and gave Bach an outlet for his extraordinary talents beyond the confines of the church.

These instrumental masterworks dominate the first two concerts, Bach Sonatas and Bach Concertos. The other pieces belong to a tradition of adaptations and commentary on Bach with their own historic lineage. The composer himself was known for rewriting and arranging his works for different instrumentation; similarly, Dinnerstein will play a popular arrangement of the chorale Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by pianist Myra Hess (1890-1965) on the Bach Collection. Bach routinely performed chorale preludes, arrangements, and improvisations on hymns of the day; Dinnerstein brings an arrangement of Bach’s Chorale Prelude on Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639 by Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) to the Bach Collection. In addition, she commissioned Philip Lasser, with whom she has worked on several projects, to arrange the chorale prelude Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, BWV 721 for piano and strings. This new work premieres on Bach Concertos.

“So often I see concerts put together in the spirit of, ‘Let’s hear all six Brandenburg concertos together now,’” says Dinnerstein. “There’s a place for that, but we don’t have to present music in a way that’s encyclopedic. I’ve always been interested in programs where I can hear a variety of work for different instruments with different timbres, that have different kinds of intentions and meanings to them.”

The programs Dinnerstein has curated for Bach from the Piano are manifestations of that ideal, selecting varied riches that shine brightly in their juxtaposition. Yet her choices were also driven by what she loves; she tells me, as we discuss each piece in turn, that it, too, is a favorite. Her connection to the Concerto for Violin and Oboe in D minor, BWV 1060R is perhaps the most personal one of all. She was so taken with its second movement when she heard it in the Pier Paolo Pasolini film The Gospel According to St. Matthew that she felt compelled to track it down. Performed by two violins, the piece would accompany her down the aisle on her wedding day.

“I’ve made pilgrimages to the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig,” she says. “I’ve talked to music scholars, jazz musicians, dancers, filmmakers, and even rabbis—a wide range of people. And Bach’s music speaks to them. It speaks to the very deep and mysterious part of everyone. I think that is why we continue to turn to his music, and it’s still so relevant today. Obviously, you can find a million details in it that are endlessly interesting as a musician, or a theorist. But you don’t need to know any of that in order to have the music speak to you in a powerful way.”

Bach Sonatas brings together four of Dinnerstein’s favorite works by Bach: Sonata No. 4 in C minor for violin and keyboard, BWV 1017; Sonata No. 2 in D major for cello and keyboard, BVW 1028; Sonata in B minor for flute and keyboard, BWV 1030; and Sonata in E-flat major for flute and keyboard, BWV 1031.

The sonata, as we know it today, tends to be a composition in multiple movements for an instrumental soloist with piano accompaniment. During the Baroque era, however, multiple forms were referred to as sonatas, including the sonata da chiesa (“of the church”): music that would have been created to fill gaps in the liturgy. This type of sonata was composed in four movements in a slow-fast-slow-fast arrangement, and constrained the keyboard—typically, a harpsichord, organ, or the recently invented fortepiano—to dutiful accompaniment of the soloist.

With their complexity and sophistication, the pieces curated for this performance eclipse any modest expectations of the genre. Each is formidable in its conception, technical mastery of composition, demands in terms of instrumental virtuosity, and significance to the repertoire of its respective solo instrument . . . To hear them is to bear witness to the reinvention of the genre.

Bach’s works on this program depart from the sonata da chiesa, sometimes referencing the types of dance movements found in the sonata da camera (“of the chamber”). They represent his synthesis of forms and techniques by an international host of his predecessors and contemporaries. In particular, they reflect the influence of the concerto: a form of composition written for a soloist or soloists backed by an ensemble, which could offer its listeners greater flair and substance than the sonata. Furthermore, Bach’s works demonstrate the expanding technical capabilities of individual instruments, while also liberating the keyboard, allowing it to take on the many voices  one would find in the concerto’s orchestration, or fashioning it into the soloist’s musical twin.

With their complexity and sophistication, the pieces curated for this performance eclipse any modest expectations of the genre. Each is formidable in its conception, technical mastery of composition, demands in terms of instrumental virtuosity, and significance to the repertoire of its respective solo instrument, befitting its performance by Bach himself with members of the Collegium Musicum in Leipzig. As Baroque scholar Claude Palisca writes of Bach’s sonatas, “the familiar and aging categories burn with a twilight glow as every difficulty of counterpoint and mechanical limitation of the instruments is pushed aside.” To hear them is to bear witness to the reinvention of the genre.

Dinnerstein will perform these four works in concert with musicians whom she thinks of as her colleagues and peers. They have long histories together, and with each other. Violinist Rebecca Fischer, concertmaster of Baroklyn, is a good friend with whom Dinnerstein has worked for years; they met as fellows at Tanglewood in 1997. “I heard her play a Mozart string quartet,” says Dinnerstein, “and I thought she was just the best, the most beautiful musician.”

Flutist Christina Jennings grew up with Fischer; both of their fathers were members of the Concord String Quartet. Jennings and Dinnerstein have played together several times over the past decade. Cellist Alexis Pia Gerlach and Dinnerstein first encountered each other as students in the prep division of the Manhattan School of Music. “She was the first cellist I knew,” says Dinnerstein. “We have had many years in our lives where we didn’t get to play together, and this is our first public performance together again.”

Sonata No. 4 in C minor for violin and keyboard, BWV 1017
The earliest work on the program, the Sonata No. 4 in C minor, was likely composed before Bach’s Leipzig appointment, in the final years of his previous position as Kapellmeister at Cöthen. It is one in a cycle of six violin sonatas cited by C.P.E Bach as among his father’s finest compositions. As musicologist and director of Leipzig’s Bach Archive Christoph Wolff explains, they are “the first in a series of works with obbligato keyboard,” giving the instrument finely-written, independent melodic lines in which Bach achieves the “emancipation of the harpsichord.” The sonatas for flute and cello on this program follow their example, with moments of even greater liberation to come.

Dinnerstein likens Sonata No. 4 in particular to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion because of its depth and seriousness; in fact, some scholars have compared the first movement’s stirring violin melody to the St. Matthew Passion’s alto aria Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, BWV 721). The Cambridge Companion to Bach describes the second movement allegro as “a mammoth compendium of musical ideas all somehow integrated into one of the most intensive fugal movements Bach ever wrote.”

Sonata in E-flat major for flute and keyboard, BWV 1031

C.P.E. Bach attributes the Sonata in E-flat major to his father unequivocally, as did Bach’s composition student C.F. Penzel, and yet there remains some debate as to the work’s authorship. It either was composed by Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773), flutist and flute teacher of King Frederick the Great of Prussia, or was modeled closely by Bach on Quantz’s Trio sonata in E-flat major, QV: 218, based on similarities in their layout, thematic materials, use of rhythm, and range.

If two contemporary sources close to Bach state that the work belonged to him, then why should there be any doubt? “There is a lightness about this music,” says Dinnerstein, ascribing to the Sonata in E-flat major a musical character less often associated with Bach. “It is bright and uncomplicated, and I think that the siciliano [second movement] is absolutely beautiful.” Rather than using dense counterpoint, this piece exemplifies the elegant simplicity of the late Baroque’s galant style, its effervescent flute lines in an active, ongoing conversation with the keyboard. In all but its instrumentation, it bears a striking resemblance to the concerto as a form.

Sonata in B minor for flute and keyboard, BWV 1030

The Sonata in B minor is widely accepted as an instrumental masterwork. Julius August Philipp Spitta writes in his 1873 Bach biography that the “magnificent freedom and beauty of its form, its depth, and overpowering intensity of expression, raise it to the position of the best sonata for the flute that has ever existed.” Musicologist George Stauffer makes lofty comparisons between the Sonata in B minor and Bach’s Mass in B minor, pointing to the sonata’s wealth of rhythmic figurations to suggest that Bach was “consciously moving away from the more mechanistic idiom of Vivaldi,” and closer to the flexibility of the empfindsamer Stil (“sensitive style”), a mid-18th-century aesthetic movement in Northern Germany.

“It is a substantial piece,” says Dinnerstein. “The first movement has a long structure to uphold. Although there is a great deal of repetition, the melody is voiced differently each time it returns, creating shadings of color. The keyboard has equal weight to the soloist throughout, so I will want to use the full strength of the piano.”

Indeed, the keyboard, with its through-composed lines and expanses of solo playing, seems to purposefully rival the flute in prominence. They share intertwining melodies, though the flute is typically the first to broach new terrain. The two continue to challenge one another through the final bars of the buoyant fugue in the concluding gigue.

Sonata No. 2 in D major for cello and keyboard, BVW 1028

Sonata No. 2 in D major was originally written for a seven-string viola de gamba, a then-popular instrument similar to a cello. Bach must have been especially fond of it, having included it in the instrumentation for his cantatas and passions.

The sonata may very well have been composed with a particular virtuosic gambist in mind: Carl Friedrich Abel, whose father served as the court gambist at Cöthen while Bach was Capellmeister there. Abel lived in Leipzig in the 1730s and early 1740s, studied with Bach before moving to Dresden, and eventually established a concert series with one of Bach’s sons, composer Johann Christian Bach, in London.

Dinnerstein discovered the work as a teenager, through a recording by cellist Leonard Rose and pianist Glenn Gould. “It seemed very romantic to me, open and alluring,” she says. “I love the sound of the cello playing it.” She was also struck by the way that Rose seemed to be trying to play like Gould, an unusual case of a string player attempting to sound like a pianist.

Like the other works on the program, this piece stretches the existing genre of the sonata over the course of its four movements through the relationship between its players. They are easy confidants, playfully encountering each other at every turn, perpetually engaged in spirited conversation fully as equals. In the final fugal allegro, they practically leapfrog over one another, the keyboard bursting forth time and again as if it can no longer be contained.

Lara Pellegrinelli is a scholar and a journalist, who contributes to NPR and The New York Times. She teaches at The New School and Bard’s Microcollege at Brooklyn Public Library.

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