Ben Johnston

String Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4 and 9Kepler Quartet(New World)

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American composer Ben Johnston’s music has long been more often discussed and analyzed than actually performed. Presumably, this is a result of the tremendous technical difficulty it presents to the performer: Following early neoclassical and serialist phases, Johnston has concentrated on microtonal composition since 1960, rejecting the equal-tempered scale that has formed the bedrock of Western art music since the early 19th century.

The scale on which the String Quartet No. 2 is based, for example, contains no fewer than 53 finely graded notes. Composed in 1964, the work’s stern architecture reveals Johnston’s expressionist roots. So, too, does the single-movement Quartet No. 3 from 1966, which appears here as the first panel in a triptych titled Crossings. Johnston’s String Quartet No. 4, a set of radiant variations on “Amazing Grace,” closes that trilogy; middle movement “The Silence” is literally 98 seconds of pregnant pause, symbolically dividing Johnston’s toothy early style from his subsequent rapprochement with classical tradition. The String Quartet No. 9, composed in 1988, frames Johnston’s adventurous tonality in a four-movement work as playful as a Haydn quartet.

Although perhaps disorienting at first, the actual sound of Johnston’s string writing recalls nothing so much as the familiar, rustic burr of a period-instrument group. Assembled for the 2002 world-premiere performance of Johnston’s tenth quartet (which will be included on a future volume in this series), the Kepler Quartet renders each score with technical security and genuine conviction, providing even the toughest works here with a narrative flow.—Steve Smith

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