The Balanescu Quartet formed in 1987 under leader and first violinist Alexander Balanescu. They have toured extensively. Their repertoire is mostly from modern composers and many of their projects feature collaborations with rock musicians and fringe string quartet composers. They have recorded the string quartets of Michael Nyman, Kevin Volans and Gavin Bryars, and also made an album of arrangements of Kraftwerk songs, Possessed.
This CD, recorded in 1992, is not a profound piece of music. But some days their approach just hits the spot. Beautiful for gentle listening. It features four works.
David Byrne – High Life For Strings. Byrne notes that on a visit to Africa he came to appreciate the many styles of the local musicians, especially the overlapping of the guitar parts. With this in mind he conceived a piece on the guitar and had it transcribed as a string quartet arrangement. This is a jaunty work with the cello providing a constant rhythmic pattern, very African. There is some overdubbing as the score called for more than four parts. It bubbles along with the cello (overdubbed) having a constant dialogue with the other instruments. This is a lilting, charming work.
Robert Moran – Music from the Towers of the Moon. This follows the standard four movement form. It begins with a joyous mood which is sustained until the gentle conclusion. The second movement is slow and thoughtful. It evokes memories of the final bars of the epic adagio of the Beethoven SQ No. 15 (previously reviewed May 2016). I get a similar feeling in the third movement; that Beethoven is just around the corner. Again it is slow and thoughtful. The last movement doesn’t seem to fit with the others, it all seems just a little too much. What a shame.
John Lurie – Stranger than Paradise. Lurie was with the Lounge Lizards jazz group and wrote this soundtrack for a budget black and white movie. The six movements are quite short and are all named. Some movements contain improvisation. The opening Bella by Barlight is beautiful. After a few Morton Feldman moments, the violin takes over with an enchanting melody. Improvisation I is dark and mysterious, what a great movement! The Good and Happy Army is indeed very military-like, however, not particularly inspiring. The Sad Trees is a very short lament. Eva and Willie’s Room/Eva Unpacking is a wonderful short eerie piece of abstraction. It is a solo piece for what sounds like the viola (but may be violin). Improvisation II tries to sustain a pensive mood but I don’t find it very successful; there is no music in it. Having said that, I think that Stranger than Paradise is probably the most rewarding work on the CD.
Michael Torke – Chalk. This the longest quartet on the CD. It mostly has an insistent rhythm which pushes it along nicely. The opening minutes can be quite angular, but it drops back a notch or two at times. There is a lot going on here.
This CD is very different from your normal contemporary string quartet recording. It has a bit of a ‘pop’ feel about it, which I find quite appealing. The cover doesn’t have a title, just Balanescu Quartet. On the spine it has Byrne/Moran/Lurie/Torke. The cover photo is distinctive, featuring a picture of a person made up by using parts of the faces of the four quartet members. It is readily available. They also have several CDs on Spotify, including the Michael Nyman SQs 1-3, but not this one.
Some of the Balanescu quartets are available for sampling on YouTube. You will have to scroll through the pages to find this disc – four faces on the cover.
Listenability: Optimistic modern works.