Simone Dinnerstein was not completely unknown — a few critics in Philadelphia and New York were aware of her singular talents. She had, for example, attracted praise for playing a beautiful, nocturnal piece by George Crumb based on Thelonious Monk‘s “Round Midnight.” And with her “Goldberg” Variations, she approaches Bach in much the same way — as if this were a completely contemporary work, as opposed to a hoary museum piece. Her Goldbergs live in the same kind of half-lit, late-night world as Crumb’s music. Which is entirely appropriate, given the legend of the piece: Bach is said to have composed it for a virtuosic Russian count who had insomnia, so he’d have something to fill those sleepless hours.
There is virtuosity here of course: pianophiles can suffer sympathetic pains in their hands by turning to Variation 5, for example, or marvel at the quiet fireworks of Variations 17 or 18. But what has made this recording such an unexpected hit in the classical music world — and a bestseller — is the distinctive approach Dinnerstein has taken. The opening Aria is unhurried and untroubled, played as if it were a kind of ambient music, or a meditation. That sense of deeply felt, thoughtful playing fills the disc, and makes an already-classic piece into something fresh and personal.