in: Reviews

August 23, 2012

Brilliant Close for Sevenars from Lynelle James

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Lynelle James is the granddaughter of the Sevenars founders, Robert and Rolande Schrade, now 87 and 83 respectively, who began the series at South Worthington, MA, in 1968. It was so named because their five children, whose names all begin with “R”; all participated at one point or another over the years, although only two are still active pianists. They were in the audience, of course, because Lynelle completed her doctorate in piano performance and pedagogy at the University of Michigan this past spring and promptly headed off to northern Italy to participate in the tri-annual Schlern International Music Festival at Völs am Schlern in South Tyrol. She is the daughter of the founders’ eldest daughter Robelyn, who married New Zealand pianist David James, and her younger brother Christopher is a cellist. He gave a solo recital earlier in the summer, accompanied by his mother.

In earlier Sevenars recitals, Lynelle focused primarily on the Romantic repertoire. At this concert on August 19th, she played from a broad spectrum of periods, without any of the Romantics. She opened with the Partita No. 4 in D, S. 828, by J.S. Bach (ca. 1729), which is really a slight variation on his period’s standard six-movement suite of French Baroque dance-rhythm-based pieces: Overture, Allemande, Courante, Aria, Sarabande, Menuet, and Gigue, the additional central aria being the exception. She played it without any breaks, thus skillfully controlling the audience’s temptation to applaud after each movement; and while she produced greater variations in dynamics than a harpsichord could have, she controlled them carefully to avoid extremes and was judiciously sparse in pedaling to capture the Baroque feel. She followed this with a late Beethoven sonata, No. 31, in A-flat, op. 110, written in 1822, which she also played without pauses between the movements. Here, she obtained the piece’s often-abrupt dynamic extremes that reflect its changes in mood, but without any Romantic over-exaggeration. She held her listeners breathless and captivated by her handling of this difficult work.

She opened the second half with Five Preludes by Nicolai Roslavets (1881-1944), whose piano music was the subject of her dissertation. They were composed in 1919-1922, prior to the period from 1928 to well into the 1930s, when the Russian composer was criticized and persecuted for being too bourgeois and insufficiently proletariat; he was dismissed from his post at the Moscow State Publishing House in 1930 and never again was able to obtain an official position. He suffered a first stroke in 1939; a second took his life, and his grave was unmarked until 1990. Many of his scores are in disarray.

Curiously, having played the first half entirely from memory, James used scores for these Preludes. They are modern but essentially tonal, being the heirs of Schoenberg’s 12-tone Serialism and Scriabin’s mystic chord theory, although they do not imitate either; Roslavets devised a theory of his own in which he referred to as “synthetic chords.” The diverse pieces do not have regular rhythms or recognizable melodies and harmonies; although they are somewhat jagged and have rough edges, they are not harsh or unpleasant and are very colorful and powerful. (Their tempo indications were not printed in the program.) They are short and went by too quickly to be assessed and appreciated on a first hearing, but certainly deserve another; it is good that James is advocating for this much abused composer’s works.

The Preludes made a good partner for the program’s concluding piece, again played from memory: Ravel’s three-movement Gaspard de la nuit, composed in 1908, and inspired by poems. Texts were reproduced at the heads of the original scores, but not in today’s program, as the composer had intended, although James told of their subjects. They bear the same titles: Ondine, Le Gibet [the gallows], and Scarbo from the first book of prose poems ever published in French (in 1842) by Aloysius, nom de plume for Louis-Jacques-Napoléon Bertrand (1807-1841) that bears the title of the work. Scarbo is famously challenging, the composer having stated forthrightly that he wrote it to be more difficult to execute than Mily Balakirev’s Islamey (op. 18, 1869), considered at the time to be the most difficult work to play in the entire piano repertoire. The three pieces are very different from each other in character and style, Ondine being Impressionistic, Le Gibet, solemn, monotonous, even depressing, and Scarbo, brilliantly virtuosic. James played them masterfully, obtaining an excellent sound, as she did throughout the performance. She played the Steinway D (the primary performance instrument of the half-dozen in the hall) that appears to date from around 1900, certainly post-1890 and pre-WW I, and has a more mellow and melodic tone than do the company’s modern concert grands; it is crisp and bright but not harsh.

Lynelle’s playing style throughout the performance was concentrated and focused, without any distracting and intrusive extravagant gestural displays; she knows how to let the music’s beauty stand out and speak for itself and she executes it superbly. For this listener, who has heard her regularly in previous years, this recital represented her maturation into a truly fine musician. She will return to New York and plan her future career, and we hope it will be a successful and glorious one.

Marvin J. Ward, a retired translator and teacher of French (Ph.D., UNC Chapel Hill), has been writing for Classical Voice of North Carolina for a decade and was founding Executive Editor of Classical Voice of New England through December, 2009. He is now a Five Colleges Associate based at Smith College.

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