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Ben Johnston: String Quartets No 1, 5 & 10 / Kepler Quartet

Release Date: 01/11/2011 
Label:  New World Records   Catalog #: 80693-2   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Ben Johnston
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kepler String Quartet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

JOHNSTON String Quartets: Nos. 1, 5, 10 Kepler Str Qrt NEW WORLD 80693-2 (51:06)

This is Vol. 2 of the complete Ben Johnston (b.1926) string quartets. I reviewed Vol. 1 in Fanfare 29:6 (was it really five years ago?). This edition is a continuation of that triumph.

I’ve written earlier about Johnston’s use of microtonality, and in particular just intonation, and so Read more won’t make a lengthy (re)explanation here. Suffice it to say that the composer has undertaken the monumental task of enlarging Western harmonic practice exponentially, by devising a system to allow for purely tuned intervals based on almost any proportion available from the harmonic (overtone) series. The result is a world of sound that is utterly strange and haunting, and yet simultaneously familiar, and weirdly “right.” Indeed, it comes closest to the exact definition of the uncanny as almost any music I know.

The 1959 First Quartet is in fact serial, and the only one in the series to be in equal temperament (the second is also serial, but moves into just intonation, a fascinating blend). It consists of nine short movements, each labeled a variation, but there is no overt theme; rather they are variants on the row. Johnston tackles the idiom with a taste for economy and precision of gesture, which results in optimum clarity. (It’s also wonderful to hear a young ensemble like the Kepler Quartet approach this music with a natural expressiveness and lively drama that belies any bias that this sort of music should be presented as coldly abstract or neutral.)

With the Fifth Quartet (1979), though, things get rolling. It’s a set of variations again, this time on the mournful folk song Lonesome Valley (which sounds surprisingly like a minor-mode version of the song I’ve got Spurs That Jingle-Jangle-Jingle ). The piece is dark, often dense, and flows in a gradual, morphing manner that blurs the lines between the variations, giving it a very dreamy effect. Sometimes the tunings, even when they create unusual pitches to normally tempered ears, are nonetheless quite clear; at others things become far more obscure. But marvelously, even when at its most ambiguous or complex, the music remains beautiful.

By the 1995 10th, Johnston’s project has moved into a whole new realm. If the first couple of quartets involved the search for and discovery of this technique and language, and the middle ones create rich, complex structures (though using familiar American folk music sources as a yardstick against which to measure the intonational differences), the late quartets seem to be a return to a certain classicism, though in the spirit of reinventing the past, not merely trying to reenact it. (I should emphasize that since we don’t yet have the complete set, which should give us Nos. 6–8, my overview is necessarily incomplete.) In four movements, it consists of a true sonata allegro, a slow fugue, a scherzo, and a set of variations that eventually reveal Danny Boy as their cantus! The music is playful, tuneful, and masterly in its handling of the various forms and traditional practices. The scherzo is truly stunning, with a polyrhtythmic texture that’s scarily complex yet iconically memorable.

Johnston is, I think, one of the one or two greatest living American composers in the classical tradition. He is also unbelievably courageous, because this project has bet on history to justify him, since the performance difficulties of this music are real and extreme. He demonstrates a mastery of traditional practice that’s unquestionable, combined with a radical vision that’s embedded in the very DNA of the notes. In this sense he’s Beethovenian. He’s also Bach-like, in that he can weave the most elaborate contrapuntal webs, yet they are anchored in a firm background harmonic structure we really hear (even when things feel really far-out, they always return to some sort of satisfying resolution; traditional part-writing and voice-leading are never forgotten).

None of this enthusiasm would be possible without the devotion and skill of the Keplers (Sharan Leventhal and Eric Segnitz, violins; Berk Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello). They’ve studied this music, worked from MIDI realizations to internalize the tunings, and probably practiced for years. The results pay off. This is truly Great Music, an obvious Want List choice. I hope it doesn’t take another five years to complete the project. If money is an issue, please, you donors out there, cough up now; the composer, an American Master, deserves to hear the culmination of his life’s work soon!

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Quartet for Strings no 5 by Ben Johnston
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kepler String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1979 
Quartet for Strings no 10 by Ben Johnston
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kepler String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1995 
Quartet for Strings no 1 by Ben Johnston
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Kepler String Quartet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1959 

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