Number One With A Bullet

It’s not often I get to review a number one record, much less two. In fact, it’s never. And, considering my taste, it will probably never happen again.

But as I write this, the two recordings in question are number one: Simone Dinnerstein’s Bach: A Strange Beauty , holds that place on the Billboard Classical chart, while The Decemberists The King Is Dead is the number one record in the US.

Dinnerstein’s unlikely path to becoming a star classical musician is told succinctly in this nice little profile from “CBS Sunday Morning” (although Serena Altschul sounds like she’s narrating phonetically). The fundamental thing is that while the combination of accident and daring have helped create her professional career, she is an exceptional musician doing something that is even more exceptionally difficult – bringing ideas to Bach – and doing so exceptionally well. Her new CD is indeed beautiful, and also enticingly strange.

What is strange about it, or rather what is unusual and important about it, is that in the course of sequencing two keyboard concertos, Nos. 1 and 5, BWV 1052 and 1056, some choral transcriptions and the English Suite No. 3, BWV 808, Dinnerstein does something that I have not heard any other pianist do. She expresses, through her playing, widely and wildly different views of Bach’s music and still sounds focussed and consistent. The composer, of course, can support this, as Bach is the intellectual giant of Western music, the man whose work is an endless labyrinth of ideas and possibilities. Other musicians, even Gould, tackle specific, albeit broad, aspects of Bach’s thinking, but on this one CD Dinnerstein traverses a few different concepts and has musically important things to say about each.

The keyboard concertos are played with a careful sense of inertia, as if she and the Kammerorchester der Staatskapelle Berlin were moving an object of substantial weight and great delicacy. The opening passages of the D minor Concerto are some of the most profound in Western music; the spiraling phrases present the idea that the basic fabric of the universe, information, can be spun out to an infinite and endlessly renewable point. Dinnerstein has a confident grasp of the immense vista of ideas and the wisdom to maintain a clear view of what she wants to say, and her phrasing is simply lustrous, each note articulated and singing. She reveals the certainty of the music, that the notes on the page are set and known, as well as the sensation that the works are unfolding spontaneously. Her tempos are slower than usual, and what’s fascinating is that they are slower than in her performances of the same music with the ACME String Quartet at Miller Theater. The music is beautiful and intellectually powerful in each instance, and in different ways.

The chorales are famous arrangements from Busoni, Kempff and Hess, the last, Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, closes the CD with a stately, quiet simplicity. In the middle of all this is the English Suite, and it’s a classic performance. Her opening tempo here is quite fast, and also almost aggressively probing. As she moves from phrase to phrase, through the different dance rhythms, she subtly and effectively shifts the pulse back and forth, all the time following the musical logic that Bach is dictating. There’s a feeling that she is constantly considering the puzzle of meaning in the piece, coming up with answers and testing them as she goes along. It’s tremendously exciting, and deeply gripping, the brilliance of it wrapped inside wonderful playing, legato phrasing that maintains complete clarity of every voice in the contrapuntal, polyphonic textures. Her CD is Bach playing of the highest technical, musical and expressive order. This is a recording that rewards listening through it’s beauty, and will reveal bottomless depths through years of listening.

Dinnerstein will be hosting her own Neighborhood Classics series on Friday, February 4, at PS 142 on 100 Attorney Street on the Lower East Side. The violin and cello duo of Maria Bachmann and Wendy Sutter will play music from Kodaly and preview a new piece by Philip Glass. Tickets are $15 and sales benefit the school. Highly recommended for all the right reasons!

The Decemberists are doing a whole different thing, of course, and they do it extremely well. On their new disc, they’ve synthesized a sound that is a cross between Green Day and Wilco, without the snotty glee of the former and the pretensions of the latter. Add a touch of the Irish, and you have The King Is Dead.

It’s a smoothly done, accomplished mix. The songs all do their job in a more than serviceable manner, and there’s no undue weight to the record. It’s like a set of hits, each track pitched in that sweet mid-range spot, everything with a clear beat and rhythm, four bar phrases and all the clichés: the bridge on “January Hymn” modulates exactly where you would expect, the four harmonica phrase that opens “Down By The Water” has exactly that indeterminate-yearning-for-roots sound the music needs, the break beats on “This Is Why We Fight” are exactly how the “Music Production For Dummies” recommends. It’s not that the music is lifeless or insincere, it’s got energy, it’s sincere and wears its virtues lightly. It’s just that, other than the faux-antiquing of the sepia-toned production, the music is exactly what you’ve heard thousands of times before. An accordion or a banjo is not enough to transform mainstream, predictable pop into something with any sort of edge.

The Decemberists make high-production, blandly palatable pop music as well as anyone else. What’s curious about the success of the record is that the blandness has spread to some vague concept of old-time America mixed with the Portland-Brooklyn flannel and beards axis. Elvis Costello’s King of America opened up this sound world into pop twenty-five years ago, with a real understanding of the roots of the music, the sound of a record being played rather than constructed, and far greater song-writing. Perhaps it’s natural that it has taken a generation for the music industry to find a way to package it to make the little girls cry.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.