The Strad Issue: January 2009
Musicians: ModernWorks
Composer: Ge Gan-Ru

Ge Gan-Ru was born in Shanghai in 1954, and studied violin at the city’s university before switching to composition, later completing a doctorate at Columbia University in the US. His affinity for string music is immediately clear in these three contrasting quartets, all written highly idiomatically for the ensemble and given committed performances by the New York-based new music ensemble ModernWorks.

The First Quartet, ‘Fu’ (1983), is the most abstract: inspired by Chinese poetry and calligraphy, it’s a tapestry of highly memorable textures and soundscapes, but although the ModernWorks players give convincing performances, there’s a sense that everything is slightly underplayed. String Quartet no.4 ‘Angel Suite’ is apparently inspired by the composer’s interest in Christianity (although I’m not sure how the second-movement ‘Gnomes’ fit in). Try as they might, however, the ModernWorks performers can’t make a convincing case for its repetitive gestures and unsophisticated structures.

The Fifth Quartet, ‘Fall of Baghdad’ (2007), is the most gripping work on the disc, an overt homage to George Crumb’s notorious 1970 Vietnam War allegory Black Angels that provides a horrified response to the invasion of Iraq. It’s a catalogue of extended techniques, noises, drummings on instrument bodies, all evoking an unmitigated hell. Particularly effective is the end of the work’s third movement, ‘Desolation’, where glacial chords underpin a solo line by cellist Madeleine Shapiro composed entirely of below-the-bridge scrapings, whines and unpitched squeaks. It’s terribly powerful, and commandingly delivered, as if music itself has broken down and is unable to express anything when confronted with such horror. Recorded sound is faithfully clear and warm throughout.

David Kettle