Balanescu Quartet: Maria T

A blurry ghost-like visage peers out from the cover of Alexander Balanescu's first domestic release since 1995's sumptuous Angels and Insects soundtrack (not counting Il Partigiano Gionni, issued by Virgin Music Italy in 2000). One presumes the face to be that of the titular Maria T yet the enigmatic name only deepens the mystery. Liner notes disclose that the title refers to Maria Tanase (1913-63), a glamorous, iconic folk-singer celebrated as Romania's Edith Piaf and the vehicle facilitating the violinist's re-connection with his roots. On Luminitza, Balanescu plumbed Eastern European folk music for inspiration, and he does something similar here by using Tanase's songs as springboards for the album's eleven compositions. Significantly, though, he chose not to generate transcriptions of her songs but opted to create new music whose spirit would honour the original material.

Acknowledging her relentless search for identity and overall passion for life, Balanescu recounts in his notes how Tanase transmuted the joys and sorrows of her life into art. Consequently, the simpatico connection between them doesn't entirely surprise given how each use their respective voices to express a broad emotional spectrum of sadness, elation, bitterness, and desperation. Most memorably, he bridges the cultural divide between them by incorporating Tanase's vocals—restrainedly—into a small number of compositions. Those moments where her voice appears are wholly free of kitsch or gimmick; in fact, it meshes with the quartet so seamlessly, it's as if they're in the studio side-by-side conjuring this delirious music together.

Tanase makes an audacious first entrance in the fourth song “Turning Wheels.” In a style that evokes Luminitza, the piece opens with syncopated folk rhythms overlaid by hypnotically searing string stabs until, two-thirds in, Balanescu's violin and Tanase's voice coil around one another in a spirited dance. Like a curling plume of smoke, her more theatrical vocal surfaces halfway through the twilight folk of “Life and Death” and, in “Wine's So Good,” she adds playful, almost possessed, chanting to the song's waltz rhythms. The collaborative result is at times beautiful. “Mountain Call,” for instance, opens with a vocal call that vaguely suggests “Wimoweh” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) before the strings dreamily cascade around it; evoking the musings of an ancient country shepherdess, the voice becomes so siren-like, the listener is helplessly drawn towards it.

Naturally Balanescu's haunting sound is all over the album, his violin pure and rustic, as at home in the concert hall as the country tavern. The eleven-minute opener “Spotdance,” one of two epic tracks, is distinguished immediately by his gypsy tone. Prodded by percussionist Steve Arguelles' understated drumming, labyrinthine violin and viola lines sing to one another while sawing strings etch trance-like patterns in the distance. “The Young Conscript and the Moon,” on the other hand, is very much a chamber quartet piece, an impressionistic adagio of heartbreaking melodies with Balanescu's crying tone backed by string shudders. Equally affecting pieces like “Aria” and “Lullaby” recall the lush romanticism of Angels and Insects.

Maria T is long at seventy-eight minutes but what keeps it from feeling too long is the diversity of its contents, the constantly surprising stylistic paths the music pursues, the sudden emergence of Tanase's voice in the middle of a song, or the unexpected appearance of Arguelles' drumming (for the first seven of its thirteen minutes, “Empty Space Dance” adopts a ruminative stance until, halfway through, Arguelles' jazz attack spins the music into another dimension altogether before just as abruptly vanishing, returning the music to exit in a ponderous coda). Like Balanescu's Luminitza and his Kraftwerk homage Possessed, Maria T is a recording that's both conceptually distinctive and musically alluring.

June 2005