It may be an obvious statement to open with, but it bears saying nonetheless – the Balanescu Quartet are not your average string quartet. Of course they are formed in the classical instrumentation of two violins, viola and cello, but that is where the similarities largely end.
Stretching the boundaries of these four components is now regular practice for a number of contemporary ensembles. While the Balanescus close in on their 25th anniversary – first violinist Alexander Balanescu created the group in 1987 – they stand with the likes of the Kronos Quartet, their most immediate contemporaries, as an ensemble capable of lifting the medium from classical confines squarely into the world of contemporary music and pop.
More than any of the ensembles mentioned above, the Balanescus have worked closely with pop and even electronic music. That may sound strange for an acoustic ensemble, but their covers of Kraftwerk are especially invigorating, here represented by Autobahn, Model and Pocket Calculator. Autobahn is the pick, starting off with the creaky cello of Caroline Dale, juddering into life before setting off more confidently down the road. Model is more regimented, though, and loses some of the charm of the original.
Throughout this disc, intended as an introduction to the quartet’s style and values, there is a strong sense of cut and thrust about the ensemble’s playing. Wine’s So Good, part of a successful disc the quartet devoted to the music of Romanian singer Maria Tanase, is particularly affecting with the folksy swing and melodic attention to detail from fellow countryman Balanescu. Some of the pieces have a relentless drive, and East, with the quartet amplified and ready for action, digs in sharply.
Sometimes the Balanescu sound is harsh and grainy, and this comes across particularly in Revolution, taken from their 1994 album Luminitza, where a drum kit supplies a loosely percussive strain and the quartet play scabrous chords. Despite the attack and staccato involved there is little forward movement musically, the overall impression more rigid and regimented. Another comparison with the Tanase album is instructive, The Young Conscript And The Moon showing the quartet’s sensitive side.
It is difficult to chart the achievements of the Balanescus without harking back to the Kronos Quartet, and the two have worked closely with minimalist composers – the New York ensemble with Steve Reich and Philip Glass, the Balanescu with Michael Nyman. Unfortunately there is no Nyman here, presumably due to the group’s recorded legacy being on Decca. Nor do we get the quartet’s recordings with David Byrne, Michael Torke or Robert Moran.
It would be wrong to make too much out of this, mind, as there is musical vision aplenty to be found in this introductory guide. The group have done much to give the string quartet a shot in the arm through an open minded approach, and if this energetic set brings them to still more listeners then the job will have been well done.