Classical Music Home

The World's Leading Classical Music Group

Email Password  
Not a subscriber yet?
Keyword Search
in
 
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews



 
See latest reviews of other albums...

Philip Clark
Gramophone, July 2010

Fall of Baghdad is Ge’s emotional response to the Iraq war and pays homage to George Crumb’s 1970 string quartet Black Angels, the godfather of American anti-war string quartets. Crumb’s sound world licensed Ge to reach inside the string quartet with freshly primed ears: like Crumb, Ge begins with yelps of anguish—produced by bowing with intense pressure behind the bridge—that hurt; like Crumb, Ge builds alienated string quartet techniques into a musical discourse that thrusts old-school string quartet charms towards more disturbing, modern-day realities.

The New York-based quartet ModernWorks don’t hold back on the physicality of attach required but this is a highly nuanced performance too: a deep melancholy pervades the genteel chorale that briefly ends an otherwise shell-shocked opening section and, in the second movement, microtones sound fully expressively formed, rather than like mere inflections. Elsewhere, Ge’s First Quartet (1983) finds him getting to grips with contemporary string quartet technique but the mature Angel Suite (1997) is a delicate study of ethereal quartet texturing, with an especially heartfelt “Prayer” movement.



Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, December 2009

These three string quartets are tough but rewarding. The First and Fourth are stylistically reminiscent of works in the same genre by Ligeti, Gubaidulina, and Gloria Coates. The Fifth is, in the composer’s words, both a “tribute to Crumb” and a record of “musical thoughts provoked by the [Iraq] war.” In this last work, Ge calls for extended playing techniques similar to those used by George Crumb in Black Angels. (Crumb’s work was inspired by the war in Vietnam, of course.) It’s not at all pleasant to hear, but that’s the point, I imagine, and one appreciates both Ge’s passion for the subject and his musical imagination. The music is shocking, but not self-indulgent. The movement titles—“Abyss,” “Music from Heaven,” and “Desolation”—should give listeners an idea of what to expect.

The “Fu” of the String Quartet No. 1 is a literary genre in which prose and poetry are combined and ornate calligraphy is valued. In this concise quartet (11:30 here), Ge apparently has tried to depict this genre through music. “Angel Suite” is based on his interest in Christianity. The four movements are “Cherub,” “Gnomes,” “Prayer,” and “Angel’s March,” and I’ll eat my Fanfare collection if the latter doesn’t sound like it was co-composed by Bernard Herrmann!

I don’t want to make extravagant claims for Ge’s music. It is daring for a Chinese composer, but not so daring for works composed between 1983 and 2007. It is well written, though—and emotionally, it puts one through the wringer. Also, in its creativity and imagination, it is far preferable to some of the Chinese alternatives in the “pretty music suitable for accompanying travelogues and nature scenes” genre.  If you like any of the composers already mentioned in this review, Ge Gan-Ru’s string quartets are worth checking out.

ModernWorks is a contemporary music ensemble, and as far as I can tell, the four musicians who participate here (Airi Yoshioka, Mayuki Fukuhara, violins; Veronica Salas, viola; Madeleine Shapiro, cello) present Ge’s music faithfully and passionately. The engineering is fine, and the booklet notes are in both English and (I think) Mandarin Chinese.



Vivien Schweitzer
The New York Times, November 2009

Music of Ge Gan-Ru was not included in Carnegie Hall’s recent festival of Chinese culture, Ancient Paths, Modern Voices, but it deserves to be recognized alongside that of his better-known compatriots like Bright Sheng and Tan Dun. On this excellent release, ModernWorks offers the gripping Quartet No. 5 (“Fall of Baghdad,” also the title of the album), the Quartet No. 1 (“Fu”) and the haunting Quartet No. 4 (“Angel Suite”).



James M. Keller
High Fidelity, November 2009

Doubtless a few Iraq-inspired chamber works have been put forward, but I don’t know of any that have achieved the public profile that Ge’s Fall of Baghdad will through this release. In truth, there isn’t much recent historical precedent for chamber music as political commentary, nor indeed for chamber music crafted to depict war…It seemed like a reasonable topic for him to fix on; as a child of the Chinese Revolution, he doubtless knows more than most of us do about displacement and frustration and being a pawn in a political playing field that assigns little importance to the inconvenience of individuals. So I turned to Fall of Baghdad with curiosity and without glancing at the program notes first (since I like to approach new pieces with the least prejudice possible). The work consists of 13 sections distributed among three movements: “Abyss,” “Music from Heaven,” and “Desolation.” “Abyss” opens with a section called “Screaming” and my first thought when it began was that I had somehow put the wrong CD into the player. Four strings playing glissandos sul ponticello to emit nailon-blackboard shrieks, or at least a nightmare of hornet-like viciousness. Wasn’t this [George Crumb’s] Black Angels?

No, it wasn’t, but it was close. Diving into the program note (well penned by Eric J. Bruskint) I was relieved to read that Fall of Baghdad “is an explicit homage to George Crumb’s…Black Angels” and that Ge’s intent was to “compose a string quartet that could, on the one hand, pay tribute to Crumb and, on the other hand, record my musical thoughts provoked by the [Iraq] war.” This betokens bravery in our time, when many serious composers feel the need to constantly explore entirely original paths. It harks back to an epoch when composers developed and perfected their own voices by mimicking, to a greater or lesser extent, what acknowledged masters had accomplished before. To Beethoven, for example, it made perfect sense to explore musical pathways with Mozart as his guide. So it is that his Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major (Op. 16) is unmistakably pried from the mold Mozart had created for his Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major (K.452) a dozen years before, just as Beethoven’s A-major String Quartet (Op. 18, No. 5) betrays more than a passing acquaintance with Mozart’s String Quartet in A major (K.464). There is nothing but honor in paying homage where it is deserved.

But Ge does more than that. In Fall of Baghdad he creates a work that engages and satisfies the listener on its own terms. It runs about the same length as Black Angels—not quite 23 minutes in the ModernWorks performance, as opposed to the Miró’s 20 minutes for the Crumb—and to some extent it makes use of the symmetries that fuel the palindromic structure of Black Angels. I wish the Naxos recording provided separate tracks to clarify just where the individual sub-sections begin. In most cases a listener has a reasonably good idea about it, but a little extra help from the recording producer wouldn’t have hurt. And while we’re talking about the nuts and bolts, I would have preferred more vivid sound. The musicians are obviously playing their hearts out, sometimes digging deep into their strings to make astonishing creaks and grunts and wails, but the microphones seem afraid of getting as closely involved as they could. This is very personal music, and perhaps in a live performance the addition of visual stimuli would make listeners feel more connected. On the CD, however, we seem to be listening from a slight distance, and the effective is oddly removed. The playing is everywhere praiseworthy; warm applause is due to violinists Airi Yoshioka and Mayuki Fukuhara, violist Veronica Salas, and cellist Madeleine Shapiro.

It’s clear from this piece that Ge does not view war in a kindly light. The first movement’s subsections make that clear enough: “Screaming” (the opening shrieks), “Living Hell” (one imagines bombs dropping over stern pedal points), “Barbaric March” (wherein Ge one-ups Bartók in his percussive string-quartet writing), “Abyss” (chaotic arcs of sound with an overlay of tapping on the instruments’ wood, reaching a point of migraine), and “Threnody” (sudden, subdued sadness, recalling the “Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura” in Black Angels, which also follows a “Threnody”—and Ge also whistles into the wind as Shostakovich was known to do in desolate moments of his late works).

The second movement, “Music from Heaven,” makes a nod toward Central Asian musical style, stretching scales microtonally as it wends it way through “Pilgrimage” (mournful and inward), “Bazaar” (picturesque, with melodies weaving above rhythmic plucking), “Caliph’s Drum” (much pizzicato and col legno), and finally “Music from Heaven” (a high-pitched “Asiatic” melody above a drone, with buzzing asides from the inner voices).

The quartet concludes with “Desolation,” beginning with a subsection named precisely that and continuing through “Weeping,” “Moaning,” and “Keening.” (Could Ge have been thinking of the wonderfully mournful title of Bach’s cantata Weinen, klagen, sorgen, sagen?) “Desolation” paints a hopeless barren landscape, and he follows it with deeply affecting music in “Weeping,” mostly invested in a violin that is not afraid to be overtly mimetic. “Moaning” is just that—not something usually taught in cello studios though the instrument proves itself eerily capable. The work ends with “Keening”; but for the cello’s monotonous drone, the instruments of the quartet have now become a morass of unhappy sounds, resembling birds or animals perhaps, garbled in texture, dismal in tone. But this descriptive run-through does little to suggest how compelling Ge’s narrative is. He has followed his model well and carefully, one benefit being that the sections come across as well proportioned. The individual subsections are long enough to define their emotive purpose but they never come close to overstaying their welcome.

Fall of Baghdad is Ge’s Fifth String Quartet, and on this CD it is preceded by his First (from 1983), titled Fu (Prose Poem), and his Fourth (from 1998), titled Angel Suite. They, too, repay the time spent in listening, and they reveal that Fall of Baghdad belongs to a stylistic trajectory that reaches back at least 25 years. While working on Fu, Ge emigrated to the United States and began studying composition with Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University. Chou favored serious modernism, and Ge accordingly managed to escape the trap of “Chinese prettiness” that has enervated some of his fellow émigrés’ works in recent years. Certainly he is capable of delicacy, but he never strives for mere sweetness. The second and fourth movements of the Fourth Quartet (titled respectively “Gnomes” and “Angel’s March”) again reveal his taste for sardonic Shostakovichism), and the composer points out that same piece’s third movement (“Prayer”) works in a brief nod to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The Fourth Quartet comes across as a fine piece, and I look forward to visiting it repeatedly.

But it is Fall of Baghdad, with its urgent message, that calls out for attention. Certainly it’s easier to produce than Black Angels, requiring no extra instruments—nor, for that matter, amplification. It accordingly lacks a degree of the variety that Black Angels affords, but listening to “just” a string quartet for 23 minutes is in no way a hardship. Fall of Baghdad is not going to replace Black Angels in the repertoire, but I can think of no reason why it should not take a place as a fascinating and up-to-date successor to that classic.

Crumb’s quartet is deemed a masterpiece for good reasons. Ge’s is awfully good, and I hope it will reach many ears. It might even inspire other chamber music composers to offer their own responses to Richard Barrett’s question: “In what way can an artist’s response as an artist have any meaning?”



James M. Keller
Chamber Music, November 2009

When I approach a new recording that might possibly work its way into a “High Fidelity” column, I usually start at the beginning of the CD and listen through to the…no, that’s not true. I often don’t make it to the end. But the point is, I like to experience the CD as a complete concept, and I have to assume that the performers and producer have designed their program through careful deliberation. As a critic, I reserve the right to bail out at any time; but if I find myself swept up in the performance, at least the first time through I ought to experience it exactly as the performers intended it.

I offer this explanation by way of apology to the remarkable musicians of the string quartet at the core of the new-music ensemble ModernWorks, a group formed in 1997 by the cellist Madeleine Shapiro, who continues as its director. When I removed their new Naxos CD of music by Ge Gan-Ru from its mailing box, I wasted not a moment putting it in the CD player, but—mea culpa—I did not listen from start to finish. I went straight to the last work on the program, Ge’s String Quartet No. 5 (composed in 2007), the subtitle of which, Fall of Baghdad, doubles as the title for the entire CD. This, I thought, could be the piece I’ve been waiting for, and I couldn’t bear waiting to find out.

The most recent decade has been hyper-charged when it comes to politics and I know firsthand that many, many classical musicians have participated ardently in debating the touchstone event of American politics in the international realm—the War in the Middle East and most especially the adventure in Iraq. But where have our composers been? Has classical music become so insulated as an art form that it finds no room to engage current events? Yes, I am aware of a couple of pieces that draw inspiration from these particular headlines, and in both cases they appear to take pronounced exception to recent American policy. I was deeply affected by a composition for string orchestra titled Baghdad, by John Kennedy, who runs Santa Fe New Music and oversees the contemporary-music programming for Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA (which premiered Baghdad in 2007). His piece is a threnody, slowly evolving over about a dozen minutes, cheerless and bleak but also beautiful in the unrolling permutations of its shimmering sonorities; and at the very least it provides a worthy backdrop for the contemplation of things most of us don’t like to contemplate. I have not heard, but have heard about, another work relevant to the same topic: an orchestral piece by the British composer Richard Barrett titled NO (resistance & vision part I), composed on commission from the BBC and premiered in 2005. It aroused considerable comment, less for the score itself than for the program note the composer authored to accompany it, a meandering essay that, amid strongly stated opinion opposing the American-British campaign in the Middle East and a Marxist evaluation of the relationship of individual musicians to the orchestras in which they play, put forth some reasonable questions: “In what way can an artist’s response as an artist have any meaning? Is it enough to make a response in terms of (in this case) a music which attempts to engage its listeners in active participation rather than passive consumption? Is it enough to set the scene for the music by means of a provocative title? (No.)”

But what about chamber music? Doubtless a few Iraq-inspired chamber works have been put forward, but I don’t know of any that have achieved the public profile that Ge’s Fall of Baghdad will through this release. In truth, there isn’t much recent historical precedent for chamber music as political commentary, nor indeed for chamber music crafted to depict war. There was a time when battle pieces were reasonably popular, partly as a form of boosterism. (In the days when a prince paid his dragoons out of one pocket and his bassoons out of the other, one could hardly have expected a Kapellmeister to assess military campaigns in a critical fashion.). Renaissance and Baroque composers often glorified warfare through allusions to Mars, the Roman God of War, a metaphor that served to distract from the human hardships occasioned by warfare. I am always astonished that Heinrich Biber’s famous Battalia à 10, from 1673 (presumably inspired by the events of the Forty Years War, which had ended a quarter-century before), gave so much play to the moans of the fallen. This much admired specimen of program music packs no fewer than eight movements into its running-time of eleven or twelve minutes, and within that span approximately the same amount of time is given over to explicit battle music—a military march and then the skirmish itself—as to the “Lament of the Wounded Musketeers (Adagio).” (I’m not counting as explicit “battle music” the proto-Ivesian quodlibet in which the gathering troops sing a variety of tunes without regard to any rhythmic or harmonic coordination.) Since the lament is the music that ends Biber’s piece, it stands as an editorializing capstone; what more typically might have ended with an exaltation of Mars here leaves its listeners contemplating an aural landscape of death and destruction. Long represented in the catalog by recordings of moderate achievement, this interesting piece is currently to be heard in readings by such splendid groups as Il Giardino Armonico (on Teldec Das Alte Werk) and Jordi Savall’s Concert des Nations (on AliaVox). The former includes several programmatic works from the Baroque, while the latter is an all-Biber disc that, apart from La Battalia, contains the composer’s stunning Requiem à 15 in Concerto.

One could count Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time as a war-inspired chamber piece, since it surely would not have been written as it was if its composer had not been living at the time in a World War Two detention camp the Germans maintained in Silesia, with his performing forces being limited to a quartet of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano (the last of which was Messiaen’s bailiwick). Knowing these circumstances we are likely to hear it as a war piece, but in fact the only violence directly addressed in the Quartet for the End of Time is the Apocalypse. At heart, it’s not a war piece at all, but rather a musical-theological meditation that is entirely characteristic of its composer.

The great war piece of the contemporary chamber repertoire—and it’s not so contemporary any more—is George Crumb’s Black Angels: Thirteen Images from the Dark Land for Electric String Quartet. Crumb maintained that it wasn’t intended to depict anything that was specifically bellicose. He later said: “It was only toward the end of the composition of Black Angels that I became aware that this piece had pulled in a lot of the very dark currents that were swimming around during this period. I didn’t set out to write an anti-war piece. But at the end of the writing process it struck me—and music can do this—that Black Angels just pulled in the surrounding psychological and emotional atmosphere.” So it is that he dated his score “in tempore belli, 1970,” which is to say in the midst of the maelstrom of the Vietnam War.

Black Angels is one of chamber music’s modern classics, and since it was first recorded, by the New York String Quartet, in 1972 for CRI, it has been often committed to LP or CD, by the Concord String Quartet, Gaudeamus Quartet, Kronos Quartet (which was formed precisely to interpret this work), Brodsky String Quartet, Cikada Quartet (of Norway), Chamber Music Ensembles of the Royal Conservatory of Ghent, Miró Quartet, and Cuarteto Latinoamericano. The Kronos interpretation is a discographical classic, fully up to the standards of excitement regularly associated with that group. But of the bunch one can be singled out as king of the hill: the recording the Miró Quartet made in 2002 under the composer’s supervision, for the ongoing Crumb Complete Edition on the Bridge label. Apart from displaying unusual interpretative and technical distinction, this release incorporates a number of alterations born of the composer’s evolving experience of this piece. To be sure, Black Angels is very much a composition for the concert hall. The four musicians play not only their electric strings but also an array of percussion instruments, not to mention that they also vocalize in various ways. The theatricality of the presentation, from the setup itself to the precise motions required to achieve the necessary sounds, is beyond the reach of an audio CD, even one with engineering as magnificent as Bridge provides. Nonetheless, Black Angels can make a huge impact however it is heard, reaching into the depths of private mourning and the terrifying shrillness of out-and-out terror.

So the hurdle was set high for Ge Gan-Ru. It seemed like a reasonable topic for him to fix on; as a child of the Chinese Revolution, he doubtless knows more than most of us do about displacement and frustration and being a pawn in a political playing field that assigns little importance to the inconvenience of individuals. So I turned to Fall of Baghdad with curiosity and without glancing at the program notes first (since I like to approach new pieces with the least prejudice possible). The work consists of 13 sections distributed among three movements: “Abyss,” “Music from Heaven,” and “Desolation.” “Abyss” opens with a section called “Screaming” and my first thought when it began was that I had somehow put the wrong CD into the player. Four strings playing glissandos sul ponticello to emit nailon-blackboard shrieks, or at least a nightmare of hornet-like viciousness. Wasn’t this Black Angels?

No, it wasn’t, but it was close. Diving into the program note (well penned by Eric J. Bruskint) I was relieved to read that Fall of Baghdad “is an explicit homage to George Crumb’s…Black Angels” and that Ge’s intent was to “compose a string quartet that could, on the one hand, pay tribute to Crumb and, on the other hand, record my musical thoughts provoked by the [Iraq] war.” This betokens bravery in our time, when many serious composers feel the need to constantly explore entirely original paths. It harks back to an epoch when composers developed and perfected their own voices by mimicking, to a greater or lesser extent, what acknowledged masters had accomplished before. To Beethoven, for example, it made perfect sense to explore musical pathways with Mozart as his guide. So it is that his Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major (Op. 16) is unmistakably pried from the mold Mozart had created for his Quintet for Piano and Winds in E-flat major (K.452) a dozen years before, just as Beethoven’s A-major String Quartet (Op. 18, No. 5) betrays more than a passing acquaintance with Mozart’s String Quartet in A major (K.464). There is nothing but honor in paying homage where it is deserved.

But Ge does more than that. In Fall of Baghdad he creates a work that engages and satisfies the listener on its own terms. It runs about the same length as Black Angels—not quite 23 minutes in the ModernWorks performance, as opposed to the Miró’s 20 minutes for the Crumb—and to some extent it makes use of the symmetries that fuel the palindromic structure of Black Angels. I wish the Naxos recording provided separate tracks to clarify just where the individual sub-sections begin. In most cases a listener has a reasonably good idea about it, but a little extra help from the recording producer wouldn’t have hurt. And while we’re talking about the nuts and bolts, I would have preferred more vivid sound. The musicians are obviously playing their hearts out, sometimes digging deep into their strings to make astonishing creaks and grunts and wails, but the microphones seem afraid of getting as closely involved as they could. This is very personal music, and perhaps in a live performance the addition of visual stimuli would make listeners feel more connected. On the CD, however, we seem to be listening from a slight distance, and the effective is oddly removed. The playing is everywhere praiseworthy; warm applause is due to violinists Airi Yoshioka and Mayuki Fukuhara, violist Veronica Salas, and cellist Madeleine Shapiro.

It’s clear from this piece that Ge does not view war in a kindly light. The first movement’s subsections make that clear enough: “Screaming” (the opening shrieks), “Living Hell” (one imagines bombs dropping over stern pedal points), “Barbaric March” (wherein Ge one-ups Bartók in his percussive string-quartet writing), “Abyss” (chaotic arcs of sound with an overlay of tapping on the instruments’ wood, reaching a point of migraine), and “Threnody” (sudden, subdued sadness, recalling the “Sarabanda de la Muerte Oscura” in Black Angels, which also follows a “Threnody”—and Ge also whistles into the wind as Shostakovich was known to do in desolate moments of his late works).

The second movement, “Music from Heaven,” makes a nod toward Central Asian musical style, stretching scales microtonally as it wends it way through “Pilgrimage” (mournful and inward), “Bazaar” (picturesque, with melodies weaving above rhythmic plucking), “Caliph’s Drum” (much pizzicato and col legno), and finally “Music from Heaven” (a high-pitched “Asiatic” melody above a drone, with buzzing asides from the inner voices).

The quartet concludes with “Desolation,” beginning with a subsection named precisely that and continuing through “Weeping,” “Moaning,” and “Keening.” (Could Ge have been thinking of the wonderfully mournful title of Bach’s cantata Weinen, klagen, sorgen, sagen?) “Desolation” paints a hopeless barren landscape, and he follows it with deeply affecting music in “Weeping,” mostly invested in a violin that is not afraid to be overtly mimetic. “Moaning” is just that—not something usually taught in cello studios though the instrument proves itself eerily capable. The work ends with “Keening”; but for the cello’s monotonous drone, the instruments of the quartet have now become a morass of unhappy sounds, resembling birds or animals perhaps, garbled in texture, dismal in tone. But this descriptive run-through does little to suggest how compelling Ge’s narrative is. He has followed his model well and carefully, one benefit being that the sections come across as well proportioned. The individual subsections are long enough to define their emotive purpose but they never come close to overstaying their welcome.

Fall of Baghdad is Ge’s Fifth String Quartet, and on this CD it is preceded by his First (from 1983), titled Fu (Prose Poem), and his Fourth (from 1998), titled Angel Suite. They, too, repay the time spent in listening, and they reveal that Fall of Baghdad belongs to a stylistic trajectory that reaches back at least 25 years. While working on Fu, Ge emigrated to the United States and began studying composition with Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University. Chou favored serious modernism, and Ge accordingly managed to escape the trap of “Chinese prettiness” that has enervated some of his fellow émigrés’ works in recent years. Certainly he is capable of delicacy, but he never strives for mere sweetness. The second and fourth movements of the Fourth Quartet (titled respectively “Gnomes” and “Angel’s March”) again reveal his taste for sardonic Shostakovichism), and the composer points out that same piece’s third movement (“Prayer”) works in a brief nod to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. The Fourth Quartet comes across as a fine piece, and I look forward to visiting it repeatedly.

But it is Fall of Baghdad, with its urgent message, that calls out for attention. Certainly it’s easier to produce than Black Angels, requiring no extra instruments—nor, for that matter, amplification. It accordingly lacks a degree of the variety that Black Angels affords, but listening to “just” a string quartet for 23 minutes is in no way a hardship. Fall of Baghdad is not going to replace Black Angels in the repertoire, but I can think of no reason why it should not take a place as a fascinating and up-to-date successor to that classic.

Crumb’s quartet is deemed a masterpiece for good reasons. Ge’s is awfully good, and I hope it will reach many ears. It might even inspire other chamber music composers to offer their own responses to Richard Barrett’s question: “In what way can an artist’s response as an artist have any meaning?”



David W Moore
American Record Guide, November 2009

View PDF  


Marc Rochester
International Record Review, November 2009

Of all the contemporary Chinese composers who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and subsequently settled in the West—as often as not the USA Ge Gan-Ru is the least concerned with fusing the Occident with the Orient.

While many others pursue a compromise between musical elements drawn from late twentieth-century Europe and America and the traditional sentimental and stylized picture-painting of traditional Chinese art, Ge has always been sufficiently comfortable with his Chinese-ness in a Western context to avoid laying it on with a trowel. In other works he has made use of aspects drawn specifically from his Chinese roots, but in the string quartet medium, as shown in these three works dating from 1983, 1998 and 2007 respectively (and thereby spanning Ge’s entire creative period since his arrival in the USA), he reveals himself to be a master of the idiom and able to produce music which, while distinctive, avoids overly blatant references, musical or otherwise, to China. When I suggest that there is a passage in the second movement of the glorious Fourth Quartet of which Shostakovich would surely have been envious, I don’t consider Ge to have struck lucky by imitation. These quartets, widely varied as they are in language and style, are nothing short of contemporary masterpieces of the idiom irrespective of the composer’s nationality or background.

The single-movement First Quartet, subtitled Fu, can be excused its titular references to Chinese calligraphy and poetry since Ge started it before leaving his native Shanghai for New York City in 1983. However, reading the booklet notes on the work is the only way in which these Chinese references are made immediately apparent. The music itself, apart from a somewhat tiresome penchant for high sustained notes on the first violin (something which crops up again only in the final movement of the Fifth Quartet where the violin climbs up so high before tumbling down—as with the famous image
of the tumbling statue of Saddam after the Fall of Baghdad), can be appreciated entirely on its own terms, making highly effective use of the quartet medium.

By the time of the Fourth Quartet, Ge was obviously far more at ease with the Western idiom and is quoted in the booklet note as accepting that "this piece is the closest to the Western classical music tradition". Even unashamed references to a familiar Western theme (the third movement refers frequently to Schubert’s Ave Maria) fit comfortably into the musical language, while in that tremendously spellbinding second movement, only the absence of the DSCH motif would prevent casual listeners from suspecting that they have come across a hitherto hidden masterpiece from Shostakovich.

The headline piece, as it were—the Fifth Quartet subtitled The Fall of Baghdad—is perhaps weakened by the sense of anger Ge obviously felt at the Second Gulf War; his understandable emotions are in danger of getting the better of his musical judgement. There’s no sense, though, of this being weaker because of its very obvious modelling on Crumb’s Black Angels. Like Crumb, Ge is attempting to write out of himself his feelings at a contemporary war. Extreme emotions—we veer from spitting rage to dark tragedy—are probably more potently expressed by subtlety and understatement in such an intimate medium as the string quartet, but the instrumental effects Ge calls for are nevertheless impressive, and are delivered with astonishing conviction by the members of Modern Works.

On every front, this is a magnificent disc. The music is outstanding and deserves the widest possible audience. The performances from ModernWorks, a New York-based quartet specializing, as their name suggests, in the performance of contemporary works, are absorbing and delivered with tangible intensity and involvement. The Naxos recording is of the highest order.



Bruce Hodges
The Juilliard Journal Online, October 2009

Ge Gan-Ru’s Fifth String Quartet, Fall of Baghdad (2007), pays homage to George Crumb’s groundbreaking 1970 Black Angels, for electric string quartet, and is the centerpiece of a stunning new CD by the ensemble ModernWorks, featuring three of Ge’s quartets. Directed by cellist Madeleine Shapiro, the group includes violinist Mayuki Fukuhara and Juilliard alums Veronica Salas, viola, and Ari Yoshioka, violin. Engineer Norbert Kraft, working in St Anne’s Church in Toronto, has captured every glint of Ge’s biting dissonance, microtones, major and minor seconds brushing against each other, and other extended techniques that produce his anguished landscape.



Rick Anderson
Baker & Taylor CD Hotlist, October 2009

Ge Gan-Ru is the most exciting composer to emerge from China this century, and these three string quartets demonstrate why. Of particular note is no. 5, “The Fall of Baghdad,” which is essentially a tone poem for string quartet depicting the horrors of wartime experience from the perspective of its victims. That work is also an explicit homage to George Crumb's Vietnam-era quartet Black Angels. A must for every library collection.



David Olds
The WholeNote, September 2009

Touted as China’s “first avant-garde composer”, Ge Gan-Ru is a name which I had not encountered before the release of Fall of Baghdad – String Quartets Nos. 1, 4 and 5 performed by ModernWorks. Born in Shanghai in 1954, his violin studies were interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. In 1974 when the Shanghai Conservatory re-opened he returned, switching his major to composition three years later. His first major work, Yi Feng (Lost Style) for “radically detuned cello”, was received with consternation and criticism, but established him as a pioneer. This was followed by his first string quartet Fu (Prose-Poem) which was a work-in-progress when he was invited to New York to study with Chou Wen-chung at Columbia University in 1982. Fu was picked up by the Kronos Quartet shortly after its completion and Ge went on to receive his doctorate from Columbia in 1991 and continues to live in the USA. This CD presents distinctly different quartets from 1983 (Fu), 1998 (Angel Suite) and 2007 (The Fall of Baghdad), providing glimpses into the development of this multi-faceted and culturally innovative composer.



Vivien Schweitzer
The New York Times, August 2009

Nearly all composers have had unflattering adjectives hurled at them, but Ge Gan-Ru was actually deemed insane by Chinese authorities after the Shanghai premiere, in 1982, of his “Yi Feng” (“Lost Style”), a radical work for detuned cello that uses Western experimental techniques to convey traditional Chinese sounds. Yet Mr Ge, 55, who endured far worse abuse while growing up during the Cultural Revolution, managed to survive the brackbats and go on to build a thriving, if highly iconoclastic, career in the West

He doesn’t have a publicist or publisher and has not achieved the status of expatriate musicians like Tan Dun or Bright Sheng, but Mr Ge, a gregarious, talkative man who laughs frequently, prefers to dwell on the benefits of his long, unconventional, road to success. “I feel I am more free, more mature, and there is more humanity in my music,” he said over coffee recently at a restaurant near Central Park.

That humanity and individualism are evident in Mr Ge’s gripping String Quartet No 5 “Fall of Baghdad” (2007), given a mesmerizing performance by the Modern Works Ensemble on a new release on the Naxos label.

The first movement of the work (a homage to George Crumb’s 1970 “Black Angels,” for amplified string quartet) is subtitled “Screaming—Living Hell—Barbaric March—Abyss—Threnody.” It lives up to those descriptions with a cacophonous, microtonal frenzy that subsides into a poignant melodic solemnity, echoed at the end of the second movement, “Music From Heaven.” In “Desolation,” the final section, which uses traditional and avant-garde techniques , the string weep, growl and shudder until the stark conclusion. His String Quartet No 4 “Angel Suite” (also featured on the Naxos disc) is similarly haunting.

Mr Ge, who lives Saddle River, N.J., grew up in a nonmusical family in Shanghai, where he studied violin. Sent to a labor camp after high school during the Cultural Revolution, he would rise at 5 a.m., work in the rice fields until around 8 p.m., then walk 45 minutes to practice in secret at a remote water station that offered electricity and privacy.

There was a respected violin teacher in the camp who took on Mr Ge as a student after overcoming his initial reluctance to risk annoying the authorities. Soon after, camp leaders created an ensemble to play revolutionary songs, which Mr Ge arranged using both Western and Chinese traditional instruments.

Following the Cultural Revolution he entered Shanghai Conservatory as a violin major and switched to composition. As China began to open up, foreign musicians occasionally visited, sometimes leaving behind scores and tapes. Exposed to 12-tone music, Mr Ge began composing in that style.

But it didn’t feel right. After experimenting with various idioms he said he felt frustrated. So he focused instead on the different elements of Western and Chinese music and the vastly different roles of rhythm, timbre, pitch and dynamics in each. “Lost Style” was his first work to feature his newly distinctive style. Unsurprisingly, given that the Chinese government encouraged a “Butterfly Lovers ” ethos (a melodious violin concerto nicknames the “Tchaikovsky Concerto of the East”), “Lost Style” was harshly criticized.

“We don’t have composers in Chinese history,” he explained. “The music we listen to is inherited, not created by an individual person.”

In 1983 Mr Ge was invited to New York to study with Chou Wen-chung, a professoR at Columbia University. He arrived at Kennedy International Airport at night with $40 (the maximum amount then allowed out of China), a violin, a box of his scores and one suitcase. Speaking little English, he hung around the airport with no idea where to go. (A bystander took pity on him and offered him a bed for the night.)

“I was very naïve,” he said. “We were not exposed to any commercial things, so I thought it was a great opportunity to study and I never thought about money.” After a week of subsisting on bread and water, he eventually found work delivering Chinese food.

“It was very tough, but musically it was even tougher,” he added, describing years of disorientation at Columbia while studying doctorate. He thought about quitting, but needed his student visa to remain in New York.

In 1989, he and his wife, Vivian Ge, an accordion player whom he met in the labor camp, founded a business, now called Peony Online, which provides information on the market for metals. “I thought in six months I’d be rich and go back to composing,” he said, adding. “I was not really interested in business, but if I do one thing I try to finish it.” After the company became successful, Mr Ge began composing again full time around 2000.

He soon wrote texturally ambitious works like “Four Studies of Peking Opera” (2003) for piano and string quartet, in which he evokes the genre with a prepared piano, glissandos and pizzicatos and demonstrates considerable gifts as a melodist. Emotive string melodies are underpinned by percussion from the prepared piano in “Aria,” the second movement, which begins in an otherworldly trance and crescendos to a passionate, theatrical climax.

Unlike many of his Chinese colleagues Mr Ge does not write for traditional Chinese instruments. “To me it”a a label,” he said, adding that he has lost commissions because of this. He also doesn’t “chase big stars” to play his works. “I know if they play my music, it can get more popular, but I look at it the other way,” he said. “I have more freedom and can write whatever I want.”

The conductor José Serebrier, who recorded Mr Ge’s “Chinese Rhapsody” (1992) and “Six Pentatonic Tunes” with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on the BIS label, maintains that Mr Ge’s music is “very approachable.”

“He has all the contemporary sounds but done in such a way that are appealing to both sophisticated and unsophisticated ears,” he added. His music is “immediately recognizable” and “communicates on all levels.”

The colorful, propulsive “Chinese Rhapsody,” whose timbre is enhanced by complex percussion, demonstrates Mr Ge’s prowess as an orchestrator. The disc also includes Mr Serebrier conducting the pianist Margaret Leng Tan in the explosive “Wu” (“Rising to the Heights”). She uses the piano in a conventional manner and strikes and plucks its strings to evoke a Chinese steel zither, creating sonorous timbres within the shimmering orchestral fabric. A coming disc on BIS features a new work called “Shanghai Reminiscences.”

Ms Tan, a specialist in prepared piano and toy piano performance, also recorded the startling “Wrong, Wrong, Wrong” (2006), a Beijing-opera-inspired melodrama for voice based on a 12th-century poem. She wails and whispers and accompanies herself with an orchestra of toy instruments and gadgets.

Mr Ge “allows me a lot of creative participation in the projects and challenges my own creative resources,” she said, and that reflects “a certain deep inner confidence on his part.”

“He’s so pragmatic, very Chinese in that sense, very down to earth and yet creates these amazing works,” she added Ms Tan said Mr Ge’s name has not facilitated his career. “Bright Sheng and Tan Dun are much easier to remember,” she said. “In every way he is as gifted as they are and deserves the recognition they have.”

“But you know what it’s like in New York: you drop off the map and people forget very fast—especially when they couldn’t even remember your name in the first place,” she said.

During his years away from the music scene Mr Ge tried to forget about composition, but couldn’t. “It’s not for fame,” he said, “but somehow it becomes a part of you.”



Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News, August 2009

RECOMMENDED

As a young man, Ge Gan-Ru came from Shanghai after the end of the Cultural Revolution to study in the United States. He's still here, turning out works that mix elegance and violent gestures in equal measure.

The three string quartets on this new release reveal Ge to be an heir of Bartók, Penderecki and especially George Crumb in his demands on the players. They make their instruments squeal, howl and whimper. The music shows its Chinese heritage in the way it uses microtones—but when the composer started writing in this style, nobody in his native land had ever done anything nearly this radical in the Western tradition.

The Quartet No. 4, “Angel Suite,” reveals Ge's curiosity about Western religious traditions. The tormented No. 5, “Fall of Baghdad,” shouts its anti-war protest in the most painful ways, and in moments of repose uses musical motifs from the Middle East.



Alidë Kohlhaas
Lancette Arts Journal, August 2009

It is not an easy work to listen to, but it holds the listeners attention, as in some movements it invokes micro-tonal inflections evoking Arabic music connected through the Silk Road to similar gestures in Chinese music. As in all of his compositions featured on this CD, Ge uses unorthodox sound distortions, such as extreme high notes on low strings…The quality of the recording makes this a worthy addition to any good CD library.



Uncle Dave Lewis
Allmusic.com, August 2009

The designation “first Chinese composer of avant-garde music” is such a prescient one that it sets up, perhaps, an unreasonable expectation for Chinese composer Ge Gan-Ru: with every release, one is looking for Ge to come down to earth in some fashion, for worm holes in his silkscreen. Ge only seems to come back stronger and better every time, and for the moment it seems as there’s no stopping him. Naxos’ Ge Gan-Ru: Fall of Baghdad focuses on Ge’s cycle of string quartets (which in August 2009 was up to five in number); this features the group ModernWorks, under the leadership of arch new music cellist Madeleine Shapiro, in the First, Fourth, and Fifth of Ge’s string quartets. From the first, this disc makes clear that Ge’s string quartet cycle is as strong and substantive at least as Nicolas Bacri’s; perhaps as much as Bartók’s.

Ge’s String Quartet No. 1 (1983) is contemporaneous with his well-known cello solo, Lost Style, often identified as the first avant-garde composition to come from China. Subtitled “Fu” (i.e., Prose Poem), he could have just as easily titled it “feu”—French for fire—as that’s how this remarkable and concise movement begins, like an individual tongue of flame lapping up from a stray branch, ultimately building to a blistering conflagration. String Quartet No. 4 (1998) is subtitled “Angel Suite”; with this piece, Ge provides his take on Western tradition. The atmosphere of the fourth quartet is suffused with late romantic-early expressionist style, particularly that of Arnold Schoenberg. But one would never confuse it with Schoenberg; it’s more like Schoenberg as angel and devil in a sort of fin-de-siècle psychodrama scripted by Ibsen, with stage designs by Edvard Münch. Where there have been so many works by Western composers that imitate this general sound only to appear derivative and out of date, Ge has mastered the idiom so well that this not only mirrors it effectively but takes it into another dimension where the image shuttles back and forth between blindingly brilliant colors and hushed, black and white stillness. It is a fabulous piece.

However, for sheer visceral excitement, neither of these quite approach Ge’s String Quartet No. 5, “Fall of Baghdad.” Inspired by George Crumb’s Black Angels, but relating to—ahem—topical events, the opening movement “Abyss—Screaming, Living Hell, Barbaric March” kicks up a fuss that would scare the hell out of Helmut Lachenmann. From there it achieves a sincere and organic dramatic arch made up out of small sections and the string quartet exactly plays out the various parts described—“Bazaar,” “Music from Heaven,” “Desolation”—and so forth. The piece makes use of all kinds of bizarre techniques of tone production, yet never seems to be “about” that; Ge has picked his program, and he sticks to it. This is perhaps the most impressive string quartet written since Bacri’s No. 4, “Omaggio á Beethoven” (1995).

Ge Gan-Ru: Fall of Baghdad is one of the best recordings Naxos has made of anything; it is spit clear, spacious yet intimate, and completely three-dimensional. ModernWorks sounds so terrific that its dedication to the cause of new music only is almost to be regretted; it would be nice to hear the group do Bartók or Schoenberg. Nevertheless, Naxos’ Ge Gan-Ru: Fall of Baghdad, while not for the faint of heart perhaps, will have those who value adventure and an intense musical experience on the edge of their seats, especially listeners who are well acquainted with the quartets of Bartók, Lutoslawski, and other first-class modern works in the modern tradition and have already concluded that there’s no way that relevant, new works in this idiom can be born.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2009

Having now made his home in the United States, where his music is making a significant impact, Ge Gan-Ru is one of China’s new breed of avant-garde composers. Born in Shanghai in 1954, his musical education was interrupted by the Cultural Revolution, though he was fortunate in being allocated to a folk group that was entertaining workers. With the ending of the Revolution he was admitted to the Shanghai Conservatoire, his graduation finding a composer strongly influenced by Western Music. A move to the United States to further his studies took him to his emotional home, and having supported himself, taking whatever work he could find, he is presently devoting his time to composition. Work had already started on the one-movement First Quartet before leaving China; the Fourth dates from 1998, and the Fifth, his most recent, being completed in 2007 and with the title ‘The Fall of Baghdad’. I can find any number of influences that is driving his music forward, the Fourth, an atonal score where you find Schoenberg, and the Fifth indebted to George Crumb. Try, for starters, the quirky Gnomes and a distorted Prayer  which are the second and third movements of the Fourth. The equally unusual Angel’s March, which concludes the work, quickly drilling itself into your memory bank. I am a little unsure of my response to the very obvious picture painting in the Fifth, where the invasion of Iraq is seen as one of great suffering. Quartets with such scenarios usually have a short shelf-life, the unmusical finale intentionally making for unpleasant listening. The performances by the string ensemble taken from a larger New York group, ModernWorks, is highly persuasive in furthering Ge’s career, and again we have another masterpiece of record engineering from Naxos’s Canada team.






Famous Composers Quick Link:
Bach | Beethoven | Chopin | Dowland | Handel | Haydn | Mozart | Glazunov | Schumann | R Strauss | Vivaldi
4:33:30 PM, 31 July 2014
All Naxos Historical, Naxos Classical Archives, Naxos Jazz, Folk and Rock Legends and Naxos Nostalgia titles are not available in the United States and some titles may not be available in Australia and Singapore because these countries have copyright laws that provide or may provide for terms of protection for sound recordings that differ from the rest of the world.
Copyright © 2014 Naxos Digital Services Ltd. All rights reserved.     Terms of Use     Privacy Policy
-208-
Classical Music Home
NOTICE: This site was unavailable for several hours on Saturday, June 25th 2011 due to some unexpected but essential maintenance work. We apologize for any inconvenience.