Colin Clarke Review of Johnston Nos. String Quartets 6-8

By Colin Clarke

Ben Johnston was born in 1926. A pupil of Milhaud, he has experimented with chance operations, dodecaphony, microtones, and just intonation. This latter is vitally important to him (some listeners might find it a touch hard to get used to, perhaps). The Kepler Quartet has released recordings of these works over an extended period: Volume One (Quartets Nos. 2, 3, 4, and 9) came out in 2006; Volume Two (Nos. 1, 5, and 10) in 2011.

The works are heard in the order Nos. 7, 8 and 6. String Quartet No. 7 was completed in 1984 but unplayed before the present recording. Apparently it has a “reputation as the most difficult quartet ever written,” quite a statement when one considers the string writing of, say, Brian Ferneyhough. Still, it is clearly no walk in the park; its shape is a rather unbalanced two short movements (both less than five minutes) followed by a finale that lasts over a quarter of an hour. The first movement has a sort of Ligeti-like fascination with micro-intervals and, indeed, micropolyphony; the second movement is entitled “Palindromes,” a study in Prime and Retrograde versions of note rows, with each instrument in turn having a go at presenting the material. By far the most fascinating movement, the finale enters a buzzing, phantasmagorical world after a creaking, misaligned chorale. The unhurried pace of this movement is more disconcerting than reassuring; passing hints at resolution inevitably dissolve. This is a superb piece, one that leaves the listener emotionally drained at its conclusion.

Dating from two years later, the Eighth Quartet kicks off Johnston’s Neoclassical string quartets, and is markedly lighter in tone. There is a clarity of expression that offers relief from the Seventh, while the microtonal inflections of the melodic lines of the slow movement really highlight the expressive potentialities of this technique. The ensuing movement, an almost-Waltz, is pure delight and one has to admire the sheer character of the performances here. One almost misses the technical skill such is the feeling of involvement, almost like that of a live performance, something which extends into the dance-like finale. Here, Minimalism shows a distinct influence.

The expressive Sixth Quartet (1980) features what Birtwistle would doubtless refer to as “endless melody”: The first violin part of the first movement does indeed seem to go on forever without any desperate need for a cadence. This is not the only recording of the Sixth, as there is one on CRI coupled with Joseph Schwantner’s Wild Angels of the Open Hills for mezzo and chamber ensemble, but it is hard to imagine a more committed one. Walter Simmons reviewed the CRI performance in Fanfare 7:6, stating that “Appreciating it requires a kind of indulgence and concentration that few listeners are likely to grant. Those who do, however, may find Johnston’s music not at all unpleasant.…Others will probably find it gratingly monotonous.” The sheer intensity here is remarkable (you may be unsurprised to learn that I fall into a third category of listener who finds this music nothing short of revelatory). Time and time again the expressive lines of cellist Karl Lavine, in particular, take one to the very heart of this unique world, but it has to be acknowledged that the playing from all four players is sublime throughout the disc.

Finally, Quietness, is a short (just over two minutes) work from 1996 written in memory of Salvatore Martirano, an electronic composer and a colleague of Johnston’s at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana for some 23 years. It sets a poem by the Sufi mystic Jalaluddin Rumi, and the vocal part is recorded by the composer himself. The Bergian expressivity of the high opening is remarkable, especially when controlled so perfectly as here; the composer’s own rendition of the text is close in the sound picture, and is a sort of half-sung, sometimes Sprechgesang, sometimes fully sung delivery that exudes a fragility that in itself seems to reflect our own mortality as human beings. Simply remarkable.

The recording is just a touch dry, but that does have the up side of allowing the complexity of Johnston’s scores to emerge unblemished. Johnston’s scores are clearly a treasure trove, and the icing on the cake is the extensive in-depth booklet note by Kyle Gann, a private student of Johnston’s from 1984 to 1986. This is challenging music, but it is also stimulating and endlessly rewarding.