The death of a child is the most heart-wrenching, life-questioning event in any parent’s life. For most it’s a hidden-away terror, for others an unbelievably real paradox: Why he or she and not me?
Not surprisingly, the finest works of this fascinating survey of William Stalnaker’s music are Second String Quartet (in memory of Daniel R. Stalnaker) and its much fuller twin, String Symphony. The two versions, although structurally identical, provide quite different aspects of the composer’shomage. Ideally, a third version would combine elements of both. “Beginnings” from the rich, dark, eerily-more-distant string orchestra rendition is led with obvious empathy and conviction by Vladimir Valek. Then quickly switch to the much more personal, individual result for “Friends” to compare. The Providence String Quartet delivers the talkative, reality-based etchings with confidence, fun where required and care. In its brief time span—a metaphor in and of itself—it’s clear that these conversations are not just pap and fluff but recaptured moments of substance and enlivened humour from those who knew the family. One of the personas (represented by Sara Stalnaker’s agile cello) eventually tries to lead the motley crew but is immediately talked down only to end the boisterous movement in unison. The full-blown version can’t find the same intimacy and overpowers the personalities.
Similarly, the Chorale portions of “Moments” are too much to bear on the orchestral track, but the jazzy relief works beautifully. The bitter, Bach-like farewell better shatters the soul and shares the pain when there is just one player per part. Nonetheless, both readings have much to say and reward repeated listening with fresh insights into the mystery of existence.
Also from the quartet is Stalnaker’s single-movement (yet with three distinct components) work that allows violist Sebastian Ruth to shine and concludes with a faux quiet ending that is quickly consumed by a much sturdier adieu.
The two sets of Preludes and Postludes engage the ear with their constant variety; the uncertainty of “Postlude 1” is finally resolved by its companion. Gerard Schwarz draws fine performances from his first-desk players (most especially the trumpet in “Prelude 5”) and digs deep into the emotional buffet that abounds in these short, tautly constructed miniatures.
The middle offerings are rooted in Shakespeare’s King Lear and Verdi’s unrealized plan of setting the tale of familial revenge to music. The five-section work for clarinet and strings (Richard Stoltzman in superb form—the cadenzas are particularly effective and the journeys to the stratosphere marvellously describe the true height of Lear’s storied madness) adds yet another dimension to the Bard’s remarkable ability of inspiring others to greatness.
The trio of transcriptions does not fare as well. Noah Brody’s diction is top notch, but needs a few more decades under his belt to convince as Lear. The cello lines are impressively presented but don’t seem to have as much correlation to the text as the clarinet work. Still, hearing this the same day as seeing Shakespeare’s Universe (Her Infinite Variety) at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Peter Hinton’s fascinating look at the role played—or not as boys created the first Juliets et al), brought extra meaning to the lines: “Her voice was ever soft,/ Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.” Fortunately, Sara Stalnaker ignores the King’s comment and renders her part with unfettered conviction. JWR