Ben Johnston and the Kepler Quartet perform Johnston’s own works

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: Ben Johnston
LABELS: New World Records
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 6-8; Quietness
PERFORMER: Kepler Quartet; Ben Johnston (voice)


Ben Johnston’s string quartets, sonically weird yet beguilingly beautiful, are now recognised as major works in the genre, largely due to the Kepler Quartet’s pioneering recordings. Here now is the final volume of their cycle.

His ‘conventional’ serialist First Quartet apart, Johnston has notated his quartets according to the natural harmonic series, rather than using equal temperament typically used by Western music. This presents a formidable challenge to performers, one which the Kepler Quartet has thoroughly mastered, so bringing to the fore each work’s expressive and atmospheric qualities. The CD boldly starts with the cycle’s most difficult work, No. 7, described by Johnston as containing ‘the most involved microtonal writing I’ve ever done. It just crawls all over the place…!’. From sinister rumblings on the cello, the music ‘crawls’ upwards through all the strings, leading directly to the next movement, ‘Palindromes – Eerie’ – sul ponticello scurrying punctuated by oddly tuned pizzicato ‘plunks’. Then follows the eerily beautiful third movement, a slowly revolving carousel of thematic ideas that subtly change with each reappearance.

The Eighth is the first of Johnston’s ‘neo-classical’ quartets. Its sonata-form first movement themes are of apparently conventional form and cut, yet rendered strange by their ‘cloth’, woven from microtonally-tuned just intonation. Highlights include a bluesy slow second movement and a scintillating, rhythmically lively finale. Even more beautiful is Quartet No. 6. A single-movement palindrome lasting just over 22 minutes, it sounds initially like an artlessly improvised song, but gains in urgency with each increase of tempo, like a late Sibelius symphony.

Daniel Jaffé


Click here to hear the BBC Music team give its verdict on this CD on our ‘First Listen’ podcast.