In 1987, Alexander Balanescu left the Arditti Quartet to form his own Balanescu Quartet and in the time since they've gone on to gain a reputation as one of the worlds leading contemporary musical foursomes. Seemingly working without any genre boundaries, the group has collaborated with Gavin Bryars, Ornette Coleman, David Byrne, the Pet Shop Boys, Spiritualized, Kate Bush, Kraftwerk, and others. They've created film scores (Angels And Insects), have contributed to film scores (The Garden) and have released a slew of unique and interesting albums, performing both interpretations of other artists work and original scores of their own.
Maria T is the first work from the group in almost five years (since 2000's Il Partigiano Gionni) and clocking in at almost eighty minutes is absolutely epic in scope. The album re-connects Alexander Balanescu with his Romanian roots, as it pays tribute to one of his earliest musical influences, the iconic folk singer and actress Maria Tanase. For the release, he took the works of Tanase and then re-imagined them through his own eclectic musical perspectives, and the result is easily some of the most stunning work ever from the group.
As with many of their releases, Maria T isn't simply the work of a string quartet as it encorporates percussion and even sampled vocals from Tanase. "Spotdance" opens the release with a rather upbeat note as a repeated string motif pans back and forth as violin melodies unfold on top of it and percussion chugs away in a subtle but persistant way. The way the track unfolds and even the way that it's constructed owes a lot to electronic music (especially in the repeated and layered melodic pieces), and like the best work of the group re-imagines the music in a way that holds the elements of the original while taking it new places.
"Empty Space Dance" takes some of the same elements as the first track and weaves them in an even more exotic way, unfolding elements even more slowly before percussion enters the track about three-quarters of the way through and really changes the direction before it again falls away. "Mountain Call" is only one of several tracks that use the sampled vocals of Tanase and as one would expect, the group gives them an almost reverential feel, letting the vocals themselves take the foreground and reverberate for long periods of time while only providing quiet and subtle melodic reflections.
With eleven tracks that fill nearly the physical maximum allowed by CD technology, there are enough highlights that I could spend nearly an entire paragraph talking about each track. Suffice to say, the five-year break certainly doesn't mean that the group was going through any sort of a slump if this is the result. From the melancholy and reflective "Aria" to the playful fiddling of "Interlude," Maria T is a release that shows off the power of a group of musicians who refuse to be bound in by simple genre definitions. Much like the Kronos Quartet, the Balanescu Quartet have often shrugged-off many expectations one may have of a string quartet, and with this release will hopefully finally garner even more of the attention they deserve.