Friday, February 11, 2011

Ben Johnston: String Quartets 1, 5 and 10 (Kepler Quartet; New World Records)

One of the most exciting recordings that's come my way in recent years is the Kepler Quartet 's CD of four string quartets by Ben Johnston. Johnston, possibly one of the greatest composers you've never heard of, is a sometime apprentice of Harry Partch , inventor of an ingenious notation system for Just Intonation, and has composed ten quartets in all, which explore the vastly expanded harmonic palette made possible by JI in an astonishingly wide variety of ways, ranging from the simplest chords imaginable to uncompromising modernist complexity. That CD was released in 2006, and was intended as the first of three releases that would make available for the first time the complete cycle of quartets in accurate, authoritative recordings supervised by the composer. Now finally the second disc has been released, and it's worth the wait.

This time, the Keplers present Johnston's first and last quartets, together with one from the middle of the sequence. The Fifth Quartet opens the disc, and is quite simply one of the most astonishing pieces of music I've heard in a very long time. It's a set of variations on the Appalachian song "Lonesome Valley," and in this respect is a natural successor to the Fourth Quartet (included on the previous release), which is a set of variations on "Amazing Grace." Whereas that quartet expanded the harmonic language to include harmonies derived from the seventh partial, the slightly "flat" seventh that lies just outside the normal scope of conventional Western harmony, this one goes further, deriving its sound world from the distinctly more alien intervals to be found at the 11th and 13th limits. The effect is ambiguous and unsettling to ears used only to the "major-minor" standard Western harmony. The "Lonesome Valley" of the song's title is the"Valley of the Shadow of Death", and the quartet is not merely a clever exercise in weird harmony; it's a profound and disquieting mediation on death that resonates in the mind long after it's over. The piece dates from the 1970s, but feels like something from the distant future, while at the same time speaking with an ancient voice.

Johnston's tenth and most likely final quartet (although still very much with us, he's in frail health and hasn't composed for some years now) belongs to a later style, which might be described as revisionist. Here he explicitly draws on old models such as Haydn, not as pastiche, but as a way of exploring how Western music might have developed had we not locked down our tuning system to a twelve note scale sometime around 1600. This quartet dates from 1995, but paradoxically feels like the work of someone younger. it's an energetic, smart and witty piece, ebullient and extrovert where the fifth is inward and contemplative. The last movement acts as a kind of précis of the history of music, beginning in quasi-medieval mode. It eventually turns out that the movement is another set of variations on a famous tune - a tune so famous, in fact, that's it's a high risk strategy to use it, as in lesser hands the point where its identity is revealed could be a moment of appalling kitsch. In the event, it's a wonderful coup de théâtre that will leave all but the most curmudgeonly listener with an enormous grin on their face.

The final work on the disc is Johnston's First Quartet, the only one of the cycle not written in JI, and perhaps something of a period piece in its post-Webern serial style, typical of its 50s origins. The experience of learning to pitch the exotic intervals in the later quartets has clearly paid off though, because the Kepler's performance brings a luminous quality that makes the piece (another set of variations, though of a much less obvious sort) seem much more voluptuous and much less "difficult" than this sort of music is commonly characterised as being.

If the earlier disc of the second, third, fourth and ninth quartets was a revelation, this set of three is no less so, and confirms that Johnston's is one of the finest and richest quartet cycles of the 20th century. It's to be fervently hoped that the Kepler Quartet manage to raise the funds to complete the cycle (including the so-far unperformed Seventh Quartet, one of the most complex and adventurous things Johnston has written). In the meantime, anyone who cares about music and what it's capable of should immerse themselves in these extraordinary works. All three of these quartets are stunning, but for me it's the Fifth which is the standout, a genuinely overwhelming experience not quite like anything else you've heard.