Kepler Quartet: Sharan Leventhal, violin I; Eric Segnitz, violin II; Brek Renzelman, viola; Karl Lavine, cello
This disc, with premiere recordings of Ben Johnston’s (1926-2019) first, fifth and tenth string quartets, presents his earliest and latest essays in the genre and one from roughly the middle of his output. The three pieces are highly different from one another in style, technique and expressive intent.
Johnston’s String Quartet No. 1, “Nine Variations” (1959) manifests his belief in the progressive nature of serialism and embraces it as a satisfying means of creating musical order. There is no theme per se: each of the work’s brief sections may be thought of as a transformation of an underlying idea that is never directly stated.
String Quartet No. 5 (1979) is one of Johnston’s most impressive achievements, music of radical innovation that speaks an expressive and engaging language with a visionary intensity reminiscent of Ives. It is a single-movement variation form based on “Lonesome Valley”, an old Appalachian traditional gospel song of unknown authorship.
By the time he embarked on String Quartet No. 10 in 1995 his music had evolved yet again. Johnston’s use of extended just intonation was a way of revivifying tonal relations in music without lapsing into a nostalgic appropriation of idioms from an earlier era, which has always seemed to him a kind of escapism, and aesthetically negligible.
Listening to the tenth quartet, especially on first encounter, we may feel as though we have entered a parallel universe in which Haydn has become a microtonalist with a predilection for complex proportional rhythms. The whole history of Western music flashes before our eyes—almost literally so in the last movement—but with all the colors different: seasons, decades and centuries all tumble into one another.
Ben Johnston: String Quartets Nos. 1, 5 & 10