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Dinnerstein on Bach's Inventions

Simone Dinnerstein
Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Simone Dinnerstein

On The Bach Hour, pianist Simone Dinnerstein describes her childhood entry into the composer's music through his Two-Part Inventions, and why they remain continually fascinating.

On the program:

Concerto for Cor Anglais, from Cantata BWV 54 - Albrecht Mayer, oboe; The English Concert

Cantata, BWV 23 Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn (translation) - Dorothee Mields, soprano; Matthew White, alto; Jan Kobow, tenor; Collegium Vocale Gent, Philippe Herreweghe, conductor

Two-Part Inventions, BWV 772-786 - Simone Dinnerstein, piano



Simone Dinnerstein: It's a quality that great art has, in whatever form, music, literature, painting, that music that is really rich can be seen in many different ways and on different levels. You can see it in a very simple way and you can see it in a very complex way. And I think that the less great a piece of music is, the less dimensions it has.


Brian McCreath: Pianist Simone Dinnerstein has lived with Bach’s music at the core of her musical identity for literally decades. The first of Bach’s works she learned were Two-Part Inventions, and they’ve stayed with her ever since, revealing new aspects at every turn in her life.


The Two-Part Inventions with Simone Dinnerstein are coming up on The Bach Hour.

Hello, I'm Brian McCreath; welcome to The Bach Hour from WCRB, a part of WGBH Boston. For virtually any musician, Bach’s music provides inspiration and even a kind of foundation that informs all other music. But that foundation has taken an especially public form for Simone Dinnerstein. Her 2007 release of Bach’s hour-long Goldberg Variations – beautiful, distinctive, but true to the music – was one of the best selling classical recordings of recent years. With the Two-Part Inventions, she explores what Bach has to say in much smaller forms. They’re works that have a special place in Simone Dinnerstein’s life, as you’ll hear her describe later on.

Also on the program is Bach’s Cantata No. 23, Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, or “You true God and Son of David.” You can find a translation of the text of that piece online at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this program again on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Before that, here is a concerto for English horn. Albrecht Meyer is the soloist with the English Concert in a concerto arranged from parts of Bach’s Cantata 54.


That’s a concerto arranged from movements of Bach’s Cantata No. 54, performed here by English horn soloist Albrecht Meyer and the English Concert.

Later in the program pianist Simone Dinnerstein talks about and performs Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, a set of very short works that show how economical Bach’s music can be. And that’s the same quality that stands out in the Cantata No. 23, Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, or “You true God and Son of David.”

It’s a short work – only four movements – but it takes us through a powerful emotional journey. Inspired by the story of Jesus healing a blind man he finds Jericho, it begins with two high voices and a pair of oboes in a beautiful plea for compassion in the face of hardship. The German Agnus Dei appears as instrumental accompaniment during a recitative, followed by a bright duet that celebrates the fortitude of the divine. The Agnus Dei then returns in a final chorale fantasy.

You can find a complete translation of this piece by visiting us online at Classical WCRB dot org.

Here is a performance of the Cantata No. 23 with soprano Dorothee Mields, alto Matthew White, and tenor Jan Kobow [koh-boh]. Philippe Herreweghe conducts Collegium Vocale of Ghent, here on The Bach Hour.


Along with its emotional power and genius of construction, there’s another reason J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 23 stands out among the composer’s works. Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, or “You true God and Son of David,” was one of the two cantatas that Bach used as audition pieces when he applied for the position of Cantor at the St. Thomas Church and School in Leipzig. It was a successful audition, and that job became the launching pad for the defining years of Bach’s work as a composer. This performance of the Cantata 23 featured Collegium Vocale of Ghent, conducted by Philippe Herreweghe. The soloists included soprano Dorothee Mields, alto Matthew White, and tenor Jan Kobow.

We can only imagine what it was like in 18th century Leipzig for children who were making their first halting sounds on the harpsichord. Eventually they would confront a series of pieces by the local cantor. This collection of 15 very short pieces was meant to help in the developing independence for each of the player’s two hands at the keyboard. Three centuries later, these are still cornerstone works for young pianists, and pianist Simone Dinnerstein told me how she encountered them for the first time.

Simone Dinnerstein: I think that most piano students first experience Bach through the Two-Part Inventions, and I very vividly remember at age nine, I was going to the Manhattan School of Music pre-college every Saturday, and they had a performance class. And I remember hearing a girl slightly older than me playing the D minor invention. And I just couldn't believe it. You know, I didn't understand how she could make her left hand play the way it did because I had never heard music where the two hands were equally difficult and important. And I wanted to play it. So my first experience was really with listening to Bach was envy. [Laughs]

Brian McCreath: Well, yeah. And for, I guess, really good reasons because you hear this music, when you have that magical moment, all of a sudden, especially if you are a musician yourself, you went to grab that. You want to be a part of it. Is there a more innocent quality to the Inventions, in some way, musically? What are they like compared to something like the Goldberg Variations or even any of the pieces in between, like the Partitas?

Simone Dinnerstein: Well, you know, I actually don't think that they are so innocent. I think that you can obviously view them that way. They're very pared down and sometimes in the Goldberg variations, there are aspects of that piece that are more elaborate. You know, he's not just showing you, he's taking-- in the Goldberg Variations, he's taking a chord progression, a harmonic chord progression and elaborating on that. And there are variations on that. So it's all about the complex unfolding of a harmonic chord progression. And the Inventions and the Sinfonias, it's about showing the musician how different types of musical ideas can be turned into counterpoint. And so it has a kind of clarity to it, which is simple and complex at the same time.

Brian McCreath: And here is pianist Simone Dinnerstein, with the fifteen Two-Part Inventions by J.S. Bach.


Simone Dinnerstein: I think that in a way, working on this was a real marker for me because I could remember studying them as a child. And in fact, I have some tapes of myself as a child performing them, which was very interesting to listen to and I could tell that it was me, even though I was 11 years old, I could hear myself today in that. And then I also went through a whole period in my 20s and my early 30s, when I was teaching a lot, neighborhood kids and adults in Brooklyn. And I taught these pieces, and so I have also seen them from that angle, as you know, "What does that child need to learn? How could a certain piece of music help them with something in particular?" So I feel like I've definitely made a musical journey and a journey into maturity, both as an artist and in terms of my career. And these inventions have marked the way. You know, I can look back at various points in my life and remember where they were in my life at that time.

Brian McCreath: Pianist Simone Dinnerstein, talking about J.S. Bach’s Two-Part Inventions. Simone Dinnerstein was the pianist in the performance of those 15 short pieces you just heard, which forms one half of a recording, the other half being given over to the three-part Sinfonias. And you can hear much more from this conversation with Simone Dinnerstein at Classical WCRB dot org, where you can also hear this entire program on-demand. Again, that’s at Classical WCRB dot org.

Thank you for joining me today, and thanks also to audio engineers Antonio Oliart Ros and Jane Pipik. I’m Brian McCreath, and I’ll hope to have your company again next week here on The Bach Hour.