Simone Dinnerstein and Helene Grimaud (courtesy of Spivey Hall)

Simone Dinnerstein and Hélène Grimaud: Spivey Hall unveils the unique artistry of two remarkable women pianists

Giorgio Koukl | 31 OCT 2023

Achieving the incredible task of having Simone Dinnerstein and Hélène Grimaud playing in the same concert season is a major scoop for Spivey Hall. Considering both pianists’ full schedules, this must have involved a lot of negotiations. For just one historical comparison, let’s imagine having Clara Haskil and Alicia de Larrocha in the same venue.

Both pianists are complex personalities who sometimes share certain capacities, like incredible resilience in front of difficulties, but also have many differences.

Simone Dinnerstein started her work as a regularly performing concert pianist relatively late, going through an ordeal of abrupt changes of schools and difficulties to be accepted in the exclusive New York world of classical music, overcoming all this with a firm and rock-solid faith in her capabilities. Being born in a Jewish Brooklyn artistic family, her father, Simon Dinnerstein, was a painter; she certainly had the full support of her family. She is married and has a son. She used to live fully this fulfilling life as a mother, occasional piano teacher, and wife until her encounter with Bach and his Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould. Then something happened, and she decided to try to learn and perform this difficult piece. The spectacular success of this recording back in 2007 and the daring successive act of hiring Carnegie Hall and presenting herself like so many other pianists have done over decades, completely changed her life. Now, she is fully absorbed in the hectic life of a touring performer. However, despite this, her curiosity and openness towards any form of music still characterize her choice of repertoire and preserve her from the terrible danger of slowly sinking into a passive repetition of the same music — a phenomenon well-known among musicians.

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About the adventurous life of Hélène Grimaud, much has been written.

Born in South France in a family of North African and Corsican provenience, who changed their family name from Grimaldi to Grimaud shortly before her birth, she started a regular concert activity in her teens, being confronted directly with the great personalities like conductors Abbado, Barbizet and Barenboim and not being at all intimidated by their actual or presumed stature she always assumed her own way to proceed. Coming out of a difficult youth with different health problems, about which she freely speaks, having overcome a major cancer issue, she is now a perfectly balanced personality, dividing her time between music, her Wolf Conservation Center based in New York State, and writing. Her musical choices are far more traditional than those of Ms. Dinnerstein. As she explained in numerous interviews, the German romantic world is where she feels more at home.

This is reflected also in her choice of living composers: actually, she works much on compositions of the Ukrainian Valentin Sylvestrov (b. 1937).

Among all his scores, she has chosen works that can be defined as “neo-romantic.”

The difference can also be seen in the choice of piano music they decided to present in Atlanta at Spivey Hall.

While Dinnerstein is proposing a mixture of Couperin, Schumann, Satie, and Glass, a pretty wide array of pianistic material that originates in her latest CD recording, Undersong, the recital program of Ms. Grimaud is far more traditional with Bach-Busoni, Beethoven and Brahms. This does not reflect precisely the rather unusual choice of composers both ladies have in common. Looking at the vast proposals of recordings of Hélène Grimaud, you can discover her attitude not to be fixed on a certain era or geographical provenience. She simply tends to choose what she feels better reflects her attitude towards music.

So is Simone Dinnerstein doing, despite her until now limited discographical output.

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What else can we mention as being common to both? Certainly, an enormous vitality that literally drips out of every note they play and equally a very careful choice of dynamics. Not a single phrase is played casually, and not a single note seems out of context, but there is always a concept behind even the tiniest details.

The best example of analysis is the recording of Schumann’s Kreisleriana, of which both have made recordings.

There, the similarity of approach is evident, but some differences start to appear.

In the slow movements, Grimaud is more ready to risk losing a melodic line, balancing this with a careful agogic accentuation of her right hand, while Dinnerstein tends to be generally quicker. This tendency is accentuated in the technically challenging presto passages, where Dinnerstein plays with a fury on the verge of losing control. Logically, this never happens; it is simply an excellent way of underlining the “chaotic” anarchy, although never over the line, which is one of her trademarks.

Grimaud never uses such a methodology. Her strength is the complete control of every emotion, every unplanned outburst of improvisation. In this optics, it is fully comprehensible that she mentions pianist Glenn Gould as one of her primary sources of inspiration. She certainly is a passionate, complex personality, but this never has the right to interfere with her way of playing. In the hard life of endless repetitions that characterize the life of a concert pianist, she is well protected against the peril of becoming monotonous by many of her different passions, like writing and her wolf protection project. Generally speaking, she is a pianist difficult to pin into a certain category, constantly emerging in a field where you never would expect her to be. In this sense, she is more similar to Dinnerstein.

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After all, the craft of creating sound with the limited means of a piano, which has neither the expressive means of bowed instruments nor the natural breathing of any wind instrument, is all about the result of the audience that is listening. This has changed dramatically, and today’s interpreters know about the problem.

Some thoughts from Simone Dinnerstein on this issue:

The way that we listen to music today is so different than how we did in the past. The entire recorded catalog is at our fingertips, ready to be streamed. Listeners have become curators, and the availability of so much music has broadened our tastes and encouraged us to be ever more adventurous listeners.
This active role of the listener has to impact how performers think about programming. It should make us freer, able to explore unusual and stimulating connections between composers from different periods of time and even different genres. I’ve started creating concerts that blur the boundaries between works, not only by their placement within the program but also by moving seamlessly from one piece to another. I’m curious how my programming will evolve further in the coming years, and how classical musicians will embrace this new and open horizon.

In a world where the technically demanding craft of piano performance continues to evolve, Dinnerstein and Grimaud stand as exemplars of the transformative power of music. Their artistic journeys, though distinct, personify a shared commitment to innovation, precision, and emotional depth, creating an enduring legacy for classical music and inspiring audiences to embark on their own musical explorations. As they each grace the stage at Spivey Hall this season, their artistry promises to offer unforgettable experiences that celebrate the rich complexity of human expression through the universal language of music.

Spivey Hall presents Simone Dinnerstein in recital on November 5, 2023, and Hélène Grimaud in recital on January 27, 2024.


About the author:
Giorgio Koukl is a Czech-born pianist/harpsichordist and composer who resides in Lugano, Switzerland. Among his many recordings are the complete solo piano works and complete piano concertos of Bohuslav Martinů on the Naxos label. He has also recorded the piano music of Tansman, Lutosławski, Kapralova, and A. Tcherepnin, amongst others, for the Grand Piano label. Koukl has most recently recorded a first volume of the complete solo and duo piano works of the Italian-American composer Vittorio Rieti, released in March 2023 on the Grand Piano label. (photo: Chiara Solari)