Simone Dinnerstein on the Joy of Bach
By Jennifer Carpenter. Photo by Lisa Marie Mazzucco.
Fri, 14 Feb 2014
Since the critical and commercial acclaim of her self-funded 2007 recording of Bach’s The Goldberg Variations, pianist Simone Dinnerstein has become nothing less than a rock star of Baroque and classical music. More importantly, she has made it her mission to evangelize and popularize not only Bach, but classical music in general, making it approachable and fun in a way that recalls the efforts of such giants as André Previn. Having just released her latest CD, which interprets Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, she took time out to speak with us about the appeal of these supposedly entry-level pieces, the importance of music education, and how open ears are every bit as important as dexterous fingers.

What made you decide to record an album of Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias?

Well, I have in mind a multi-year project where I’ll record all of Bach’s keyboard works, so I thought it would be interesting to start with my first introduction to Bach. And for most pianists, the first Bach pieces that they ever played were the Inventions. So, as a kind of beginning of my own narrative of this journey, I start with the ones that he himself wrote as a guide to keyboard players.

I understand that the Inventions have a great deal of meaning for you personally.

Well, my earliest memories of Bach have to do with the Inventions and my own experience of playing them and wanting to play certain ones that were beyond my reach at that point. I remember being nine or ten years old, and friends of mine were able to play the D minor Invention, and it was too hard for me. I was really jealous! I think I learned so much, not only about how to play Bach but how to play any kind of music on the piano by studying the Inventions, because you’re learning how to balance and manipulate two voices that are equally important. A lot of piano music isn’t written that way. A lot of it places much more emphasis on the right hand having melodic dominance and the left hand being more of a harmonic support. Learning something where it’s so clearly outlined that the two hands are equally important carries over to how you see all music. You start to see music as being made up of multiple lines and how to think about music as many voices, as opposed to one thick texture. The Sinfonias were pieces that I listened to a lot as a teenager. I was really obsessed with Glenn Gould’s recording of them, and I remember listening to them a lot with my husband (who at that time was my boyfriend), and I guess I have romantic associations with those pieces because I listened to them a lot when I first met him.

In your opinion, what is inventive about a Bach Invention?

Well, there are so many things that are inventive. I mean, in his preface to the works, he wrote about how this was a guide to keyboard players or, as he said—keyboard “lovers”—as to how to think about two- or three-voice counterpoint, and how to play cantabile in a “singing” way. The Inventions go through different keys so it’s also exploring the color of each harmonic area. And Bach, being Bach, wrote these stunning pieces of music as practical teaching exercises. It’s almost like all of his musical output has been concentrated into two or three voices. Each one is quite short but they have very different characters from one to another. Sometimes you’ll have something that’s almost a double aria from a cantata or you’ll have something that sounds like a movement of a Brandenburg Concerto that has a kind of orchestral sound. I think there was a tremendous amount of imagination that went into writing these pieces. 

Since Bach doesn’t specify tempo in the pieces, how did you decide on the proper tempo for each one?

I think tempo is one of the exciting challenges about playing Bach because you can really go many different ways. Sometimes you have a particular type of dance in mind that would give you a sense of a tempo—a fast dance, a slow dance, a walking dance, that kind of thing—that gives you an indication as to what would feel natural in terms of playing. Also, I think his choice of the pulse of what kind of notes he’s using—sixteenth-notes, eighth-notes, 6/8 time signature, and so on—those kinds of decisions also can give you a clue.

That said, I do think you can make the Inventions work at many different tempos, and that points out a really fun aspect of learning Bach: you can make an argument for many different ways of playing the same piece of music. Also, some of the decisions I made were based on the context of a particular piece being in the context of all of the Sinfonias and Inventions. I think if I just played one by itself it might make sense to play it in a certain way, but I wanted to make sure there was enough variety between them. Also, I was working with quite a temperamental piano. It’s really one of my favorite pianos and I’ve used it for many recordings, but it’s old. It’s a 1903 Steinway and it seems to want to do things a certain way.

How does your interpretation of Bach differ from what Glenn Gould has done? 

His recording of these pieces is actually one of my favorites of all of his work, but to be honest, I stopped listening to it once I started working on my own. I feel like the way he plays these pieces is extremely personal. The piano that he used was really a bit of a “honky-tonk” piano which had all of these problems, and that actually made that recording very authentic. Most people learn these pieces on their family’s instrument, which is usually not concert-grade. So there’s something very homey about Gould’s recording, and I like the fact that the piano has imperfections. I wouldn’t even want to compare myself to him because he’s such a deity, but I don’t think I think about the music in the same way when I’m playing it myself. I think about it as being much more legato. When I’m playing, I’m thinking a lot about breath and shape and contour. My articulation is just completely different than the choices that Gould made.

How have the recordings of the Inventions changed over time? How did you put your unique stamp on them in comparison to those trends?

It might be better to talk about general trends in Bach performance, not specific to the Inventions. Before Gould, there was a much more romantic approach. If you listen to Edwin Fischer or Myra Hess, when they played Bach on the piano, they were using all of the piano’s abilities. In other words, they were using the pedal, they were using a range of dynamics, and it was much more about seeing Bach through the lens of their own period, pre-war and during the war, during which people were really into individuality. 

Then, Glenn Gould had a unique vision of the music that was in sync with who he was. After him, I think there arose a generation, even two generations, who thought he represented how Bach should sound. But, of course, he wasn’t the norm. So, now I think that playing Bach has become a little bit more uniform. People are much more leery of using any pedal when they play, for example.

I just saw András Schiff perform the Goldberg Variations when I was in Seattle, and he didn’t use any pedal at all. He is now not using any pedal when he plays Bach. I think we’ve been very much dominated by the movement of historically authentic performance and thinking about how to make the piano sound like the harpsichord or the clavichord, and that’s affected everything: tempo, articulation, tempo, and dynamics. I guess I don’t really think of it that way when I’m playing. I feel that I’m playing it on a piano and that I should use the full range of the instrument because, to me, it only brings more out of Bach’s music. It doesn’t take away from the music—it just shows more layers of complexity.

What’s your favorite Invention and why?

At the least of my favorites is the Invention in B flat major. There is such a beautiful feeling of openness and there’s something about it that’s almost yielding. I think that about other pieces he’s written in the key of B flat; there’s something about that key that he just felt was open, warm, and almost like a hug. My favorite Sinfonia is the one in E flat major, which is actually very unusual. In all of the other Sinfonias the three voices are very equal and they all trade off similar material, whereas in that one it’s written differently, as the bass line is really like a continuo part. It’s basically a two-part Invention plus continuo, so it’s much more like a wind duet or a vocal duet. It’s so beautiful.

Which edition of the Bach Inventions do you think is best for the aspiring pianist to start playing?

The one that I use now is the Bärenreiter edition, which I guess is one of the most recent and historically informed editions, and it’s very nicely printed. But there is an edition for students that I had used in the past that serves as a guide to ornamentation, and provides other useful information. Now, when I’m learning a piece of music, I don’t want to see all of that stuff. I want to be able to think more freely about it myself, but when you’re a student, you really need help in knowing how to look at a piece of music. You’re learning how to be a detective.

What do you think is the most important thing that a pianist can learn by mastering these Inventions? 

Well, the most obvious thing is that your left hand is going to get an awful lot of attention. You’re learning how to play complicated patterns and to play expressively with a left hand, and that’s not usual. This is probably the first experience of having to do that as a pianist. And the other thing you’re learning by doing this is to multi-task your hearing so that you can hear two voices simultaneously. That’s actually the hardest thing. What’s even harder than playing them at the same time is being able to listen and follow the two lines as they’re going along. We’re not used to that. There’s really nothing in contemporary popular music that’s like this; it’s all dominated by one voice.

I was thinking about the music that my son has been listening to. He listens to hip-hop, and Jay-Z has done all of these different collaborations with artists, so you’ll have something like Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake, but they don’t ever sing at the same time. If they do, one is very much subservient to the other, like a call-and-response. Most pop music is like that, so we’re not used to thinking that there could be two voices that are equally important and that we actually have to pay attention to both at the same time. The biggest thing any student will gain from studying Bach’s Inventions is that it will guide them into that type of listening.

Given this “multitimbral” nature of Bach, what are some good practice techniques for mastering it?

I’ve noticed for many students that they should practice hands separately. You need to know exactly what you’re doing with each hand. I also think that with Bach, it can be really useful to sing one of the voices while playing the other one. It’s hard to do and it might not be practical in some of the Inventions that are hopping around, but in some of the ones that are slower it could be possible. If one of my students had a certain part where they had an imitation [i.e., a repeating musical phrase] taking place at different times, I’d have them play it as a unison just to hear and see that they’re doing the same thing, just at different times. Obviously, the other thing is breaking it down so you’re not taking on the whole piece all the time, but instead practicing and mastering one section of it before you move on to another.

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