String Quartets Nos 1, 5 & 10

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LABELS: New World
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1, 5 & 10
PERFORMER: Kepler Quartet

Intellectual as well as technical virtuosity are required to play the music of Ben Johnston, and in this second volume of his quartets, the Kepler Quartet continue their accomplished advocacy on his behalf. Despite the somewhat dry sound, the lucid structures and creative energy of Johnston’s music continue to delight the ear and stimulate the mind (as they did in Vol. 1, released in 2006). 
His First Quartet (1959) is a well-crafted set of Webernian serial variations, in which the accepted system of equal temperament, where all 24 major and minor keys sound more or less in tune by being slightly out of tune, is a given. However in the early 1960s Johnston, under the influence of Harry Partch, began using pre-18th century systems of just intonation, eventually adding intervals derived from the upper partials of the overtone series. If all this sounds horribly mathematical and dry, fear not: Johnston’s Fifth Quartet (1979) is a wistful set of variations on the Appalachian folksong ‘Lonesome Roads’, that evoke an inimitable sense of lost worlds. 
In his most recent (1996) quartet, Johnston set himself the task of writing in 18th- and 19th-century forms as if the harmonic techniques made feasible by equal temperament had never happened. Here the various systems of just intonation add an intriguing twist to the traditional contrasting themes and keys of a sonata form first movement, which is followed by a lyrical fugue, a polyrhythmic scherzo, and a last movement that starts out in the Renaissance, but ends up in an ear-bending setting of ‘Danny Boy’. Amazingly, it all sounds perfectly natural. Howard Goldstein