Notes and Editorial Reviews
A fine introduction to the sophisticated, accessible music of an American composer who deserves to find listeners.
Prior to receiving this CD I had never heard any of William Stalnaker’s music, though I had met the name before (see below). He seems to have made no previous appearance on the pages of MusicWeb International, so some biographical information (courtesy of the booklet notes to this CD and a little internet research) may not go amiss. Stalnaker’s early musical experience was in the world of dance band music, as a player and an arranger. After service in World War II he turned his attention towards ‘classical’ music, studying composition with Walter Piston and Roger Sessions. He also undertook musicological
studies, and wrote a Princeton Ph.D on early Italian opera – it is in that context that I have occasionally met his name as a book reviewer and the like. A player and teacher of the French Horn, Stalnaker has been both an orchestral musician and an academic, spending some years as Head of the Music Department at Portland State university in Oregon until his retirement. Busy as a teacher, player and composer, the roll call of Stalnaker’s contributions to musical life is considerable – not least as co-founder (with violinist Sergio Luca) of the summer festival, Chamber Music Northwest.
Stalnaker’s own contribution to the CD booklet makes a general point about the works recorded here: “In style they adhere to my persistent belief that the Schönbergian revolution and its techniques need not limit the true essence of musical experience: beautiful, expressive sound. A term appropriate to my music, I believe, is ‘atonal chromaticism.’ It is not strictly ‘12-tone’ music, although tone rows are often used in the formation of melodies. The listener will answer questions of expression and beauty”.
For this listener, at least, such questions can definitely be answered in the affirmative, as it were: there is much here that is expressive and, indeed, beautiful. There is a consistent sense of subtly varied symmetry and balance to Stalnaker’s writing – a balance actually also in evidence in the way that he has put the whole CD together. It begins and ends with four orchestral preludes and an orchestral prelude; the first set are followed by the First String Quartet, the second set preceded by the String Symphony, that String Symphony being a transcription of the Second String Quartet; at the centre of the CD are two versions of Re Lear, one for clarinet and strings, one for solo cello (and actor). The whole might, thus, be represented as a1-x-b1-c1-c2-b2-a2 – a kind of modified palindrome.
Re Lear is an impressive central work. Written around 2000, according to Stalnaker’s booklet notes, Re Lear reflects Stalnaker’s interest in Verdi and, in particular Verdi’s planned, but unwritten operatic version of King Lear. If written it might well, one assumes have been called Re Lear. But Stalnaker’s title, in a kind of bilingual pun might be understood as meaning ‘About Lear’ or ‘With Reference to Lear’. In the original version for clarinet and strings - played very winningly by Richard Stoltzman and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra – we hear purely musical responses to, music written ‘about’, five speeches from Shakespeare’s play (necessary references and full texts are provided in the CD booklet). The writing for clarinet often reflects the rhythms and phrasing of the texts, without being crudely mimetic or onomatopoeic; with orchestral writing that complements and comments upon the dominant solo voice, these are like (very) miniature concertos and make their own distinctive and interesting contribution to the genre of Shakespeare music. The versions, of three of the five pieces, made for solo cello, are actually prefaced by Noah Brody’s delivery of the relevant lines. I am not sure that this adds a great deal, nor why this should be deemed necessary for the cello versions but not for the clarinet/string orchestra originals. The cello transcriptions have a power which makes them well able to speak for themselves and they have a musical interest by no means wholly dependent on their literary sources.
The orchestral preludes (and postludes) which open (and close) the CD are consistently engaging miniatures, the first set being apparently written in the 1980s (Stalnaker’s notes are not very precise where dates are concerned!) for solo guitar and later orchestrated; the second set came about, we are told, “in response to a request, several years ago … from composer and conductor Eric Funk”. Scored for small orchestra this is music of real subtlety, seeded with possibilities the listener is largely left to elaborate for himself/herself.
The writing of Stalnaker’s First String Quartet also seems to have spanned a period of “many years”, since it was begun in the 1950s and completed in the 1990s. For all that, it is a tautly constructed single movement piece, it was first performed by the Moscow String Quartet in 1994. In three more or less distinct sections, fast-slow-fast, it packs a fair emotional range and some satisfying musical structures in its seven and a half minutes. Though in three movements, the Second Quartet is also pretty brief – Stalnaker is not, it seems, a man readily given to the extended working out of his ideas, or who sees musical virtues in length for its own sake. This second quartet is dedicated to the memory of the composer’s son Daniel, who died at the age of 37. Though there are, naturally, elegiac passages in the work, the tone is, on the whole, more expressively consolatory than grievingly indulgent, pleasant memories and love qualifying the sense of loss. The version for String Orchestra also works well.
It would be wrong to make excessive claims for this music, to proclaim Stalnaker a neglected great. But what can, and should be, said is that on the evidence of this CD he is a composer whose work deserves a wider hearing, his music accessible but sophisticated, constantly alert and skilfully realised.
-- Glyn Pursglove, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
String Symphony by William Stalnaker
Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra
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