Alexander Balanescu set up his eponymous quartet in 1987, and it has since acquired a reputation as one of the world’s leading contemporary music groups. Collaborators have included Michael Nyman, Peter Greenaway, The Pet Shop Boys, Spiritualized, Kate Bush and Kraftwerk.
For the first album from the Quartet in five years Balanescu has returned to his Romanian roots and one of his earliest influences, the glamorous and iconic folk singer and actress Maria Tanase (1913-1963), hailed as the Romanian Edith Piaf.
Previous album Luminitza took Eastern European folk music as the source of inspiration for new compositions, and Maria T also has a wonderfully Balkan feel with moody, minor key harmonies, singing violins and magnificent, lush melodies. This time Balanescu has not only used Maria Tanase’s songs as the basis of new music, but has blended some of her recorded vocals into the new material.
The tour de force nine-and-a-half minute Life And Death is the most gorgeous example of this. Melancholy, beautiful, her haunting voice is surrounded and caressed by exquisite strings and she sings of – well, love and death, of course. Turning Wheels is another epic (most tracks go well beyond the five-minute mark) in the same vein, spiraling slowly, almost imperceptibly, to an exciting, impassioned climax.
Some tracks are simply joyous, however – the jaunty, fidgety 11-minute opener Spotdance could almost be the result of an unholy alliance between Philip Glass and The Stranglers in their Black Waltz phase. Mountain Call takes us into vast empty spaces and a yodeling phase, complete with echoes. Interlude is a bright and breezy snippet in which the cello is allowed to shine.
But the overall feeling is one of moody contemplation, in the spirit of the Portuguese saudade – an untranslatable word that expresses a sense of loss, of longing but also of beauty and lies at the heart of fado. The Romanian equivalent, according to the sleeve notes, is the fatalistic folk philosophy with the transience of existence at its core. Even the delightful Wine’s So Good ends on a blackly funny note – “Great is wine and tasty too / when you drink it with a handsome man / But if you drink it with a minger / it gets stuck down your throat.” I’d love to know the word for minger in Romanian…
This album could become an addictive pleasure. We all need to wallow from time to time and I can’t think of a more glorious accompaniment.