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Ben JOHNSTON (b. 1926)
String Quartets
No. 6 (1980) [22:29]
No. 7 (1984) [23:45]
No. 8 (1986) [17:52]
No. Quietness (1996) [2:18]
Kepler Quartet (Sharan Leventhal (violin I); Eric Segnitz (violin II); Brek Renzelman (viola); Karl Lavine (cello))
rec. 2012-2016, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
NEW WORLD RECORDS 807302 [66:43]

String Quartets
No. 1 Nine Variations (1959) [17:11]
No. 5 (1979) [13:43]
No. 10 (1995) [19:57]
Kepler Quartet
rec. 2007-2010, Milwaukee Presbyterian Church, Wisconsin, USA
NEW WORLD RECORDS 806932 [51:06]

String Quartets
No. 2 (1964) [17:03]
No. 9 (1988) [19:53]
No. 3 Crossings (Verging) (1966) [11:10]
The Silence [1:38]
No.  No. 4 The Ascent (1973) [10:29]))
Kepler Quartet
rec. 2002-2005, Miramar Theater, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
NEW WORLD RECORDS 806372 [60:46]

US composer Ben Johnston was born in Macon, Georgia. In the fullness of time he became a pupil of Darius Milhaud. We are told that the French composer's neo-classicism can be felt in Johnston's early works. After engaging with serialism and indeterminacy his music has been shaped by the use of 'just intonation', a comparatively accessible tuning system that stretches back to ancient times. Johnston is said to be "a pioneer in the use of microtones and non-tempered tuning, rationalizing and going beyond Harry Partch's achievements in this domain".

These ten string quartets were written over a long timeframe: 1951-1995. The present project has been carried through under the composer's supervision. Individual works have been taken up by the Fine Arts, Kronos and Concord string quartets but this is the first integral.

80730: String Quartet No. 6 (Legato espressivo) is in a single movement running to 23 minutes. Its sweetly congealed music has a certain dignity. This speaks across the humming mangroves of dissonance. String Quartet No. 7 is in three movements which, typically of this composer, are labelled to describe the character of the music; in this case "Scurrying, Forceful, Intense". The buzz-saw intensity of the first movement explodes into a phantasmagorical hornet horde. Relief comes in "Palindromes - Eerie" with its flickering witchery recalling the string quartet writing in Warlock's The Curlew. "Variations - With Solemnity" ends things in a grinding and groaning meditation. String Quartet No. 8 concerns itself with fly-away fantasy dissonance, parts of which are the aural equivalent of "maze-marching". The "Lazy, Rocking" movement is easy on the ear, if moody, but there is some harmonic "oxidation" at the edges. The following Scherzo is not that fast but the finale, for all its hints of Purcellian grandeur, uses curdled harmonies in an intriguing and mesmerising way. Johnston's brief and poignant Rumi setting, Quietness has the grainy growl and un-theatrical monotone of the composer himself as vocalist.

80693: The Fifth String Quartet is in one movement. It suggests some creature crawling, sinister and slow, out of the primeval mud. The music slips in and out of harmonic focus and the aural colours melt, streak and run. A hint of Amazing Grace links with the quartet's predecessor. No. 10's first movement - full of purpose - is rhythmically very sharp and has good lungs. The second again brings us face to face with Johnston's predilection for Purcellian gravity. The third seems to portray a Mephistophelian dancer serenading his way through a pizzicato hailstorm. Back to Purcellian grand emotions for a finale that is memorable for an accessible descant. The work ends with surely unconscious references to the quietly rambling undergrowth of Kastchei's garden. The First Quartet, Nine Variations saw the light of day in 1959. These variations, each separately tracked and not preceded by the theme, are Webern-like crystalline miniatures, some as brief as 38 seconds. The music journeys through serrated-edge violins (a touch of Herrmann's Psycho?), fluid pulsation and romantic lyricism led by violin I. The writing is oddly angled and assertive, ruthless, brusque and spacious.

80637: String Quartet No. 9 has grace and a smiling and kindly humour. It's balletic - rather like Copland, but only just. At 3:14 in the first movement there's a miniature and barely audible faery dance. The "Fast elated" movement has a Tippett-like feyness about it while its successor is all sombre Purcellian majesty which is made the more otherworldly by the sombre slow morphing of the music's harmony. It recalls the use of microtones in Foulds' Cello Sonata and Mirage. The almost Schubertian finale seems to depict a chase, sometimes ruthless, sometimes carefree. Crossings comprises string quartets 3 and 4 separated by The Silence which comprises just short of two minutes of just that: silence. No. 3, a "plink-plunk" Bergian sunrise, carries the title Verging. No. 4 The ascent uses the hymn Amazing Grace. This well known melody, often from the singing experience, is extruded and held up to an inventive distorting mirror. The games played seem solicitous as to the shape of the melody but imparts change to the hymn's familiar contours and phrases. After dense writing and buzzing acidic furies (6:24) Johnston ends the work/movement in deep repose. This is an extremely attractive piece: fresh as a surreal daisy. What better place to start your exploration of Johnston's quartets? String Quartet No. 2 ranges in mood through light and quick, vinegary dissonance and Bergian melancholia. Some extremely minute sounds eventually make way for slow, warm decay and an indeterminate ending.

All three discs - which are only available separately - are well documented, though only in English. The recordings have been made in several lively acoustic spaces securing resonant and immediate results. This was, no doubt, a sorely demanding mission for the Kepler but they give every indication of having deeply imbibed this music. It is now part of their being and courtesy of these three discs it can be part of ours.

Rob Barnett



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