Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ben Johnston, String Quartets Nos. 6, 7 & 8, Kepler Quartet

I was lucky when young to come across a Nonesuch LP that included one of Ben Johnston's String Quartets--No. 2 as performed nicely by the Composers Quartet. I still have that album and it continues to make an impression on me as like nothing else I had heard at the time, or since. Until now.

Happily the Kepler Quartet is recording Johnston's complete cycle of quartets. I have a copy of the final installment, String Quartets Nos. 6, 7 & 8 (New World 80730-2) and I must say I am enthralled with it. Quartets 6-8 cover 1980-86 and show us a maturity and inventive sophistication that can only be described as phenomenal.

Johnston's working with microtonal and untempered tunings continues. The directly communicative melodic-harmonic elements ground us in a readily grasped way, yet the intervallic alterations lead us into an uncanny realm where all has shifted. Once one adjusts to the mathematical reapportioning of the pitches one experiences something very ear-boggling, enlightening.

The perpetuum mobile presentations of the slower movements--"Variations" from the Seventh, "Lazy, rocking" from the Eighth, and the entire single movement "Legato espressivo" that comprises the Sixth are most remarkable, lyrical yet bitingly intoned as if from another world. That is not to say that the other movements are in any way extraneous--they have contrastive impact and excitement. And taking all three quartets as a listening whole they flow exceedingly well, brilliantly. A bonus is the hauntingly terse "Quietness," a short work from 1996 with a very moving poetic recitation and quartet accompaniment in honor of the passing of composer Salvatore Martirano.

The Kepler Quartet no doubt did considerable rehearsal time getting the tunings exact and the phrasings just right--and if you have a good ear you hear the logic and precision of the tunings and get an extremely expressive, ideal set of performances. All kudos to the Kepler Quartet.

This is a landmark recording of music extraordinarily advanced and yet with a kind of straightforward avant lyricism that is unforgettable. I can't wait to catch up with the Kepler versions of the other quartets. This disk alone is absolutely essential in itself though. Get it and listen closely if you can!

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