Balanescu Quartet, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Maria Tanase, who died at the height of her fame in 1963, has been described as Romania's Edith Piaf. A film star as well as a singer, she combed villages for songs, like a true ethno-musicologist, and thus helped to keep her country's musical traditions alive when commercial pressures were conspiring to erase them.

Maria Tanase, who died at the height of her fame in 1963, has been described as Romania's Edith Piaf. A film star as well as a singer, she combed villages for songs, like a true ethno-musicologist, and thus helped to keep her country's musical traditions alive when commercial pressures were conspiring to erase them.

Since her records are hard to find, and since she figures neither in Grove nor in The Rough Guide to World Music, Alexander Balanescu's concert - billed as an homage to her, supported by archive recordings and film - looked the perfect chance for the rest of us to catch up on a figure little known outside her native Romania.

As a compatriot in exile, Balanescu was going to reconnect with the sounds he had grown up with: he would make a show to suggest the living spirit of his country's great diva. But he wasn't going to make slavish transcriptions of ethnic material. Through his "own particular musical perspective" he would "develop a new personal language" but still remain true to the spirit of the original source material.

The show's initial effect was pleasantly dislocating, as the video artist Klaus Obermaier's projected sheep gradually multiplied into a flock of millions, while a haunting recorded voice - presumably not Tanase's - sang a Romanian mountain-call. Then Balanescu, in trademark trilby, led his string colleagues into a piece that felt like watered-down Michael Nyman tinged with essence of Arvo Pärt. In fact, I noticed Nyman himself in the audience, though he didn't seem to be entranced.

Neither was I, as what was billed as Balanescu's "new personal language" began to take its toll. On-the-spot sampling meant that every sound from the quartet was magnified a thousand times: it was like being invited to look at a large oil painting with a magnifying glass, and the repetitive syncopations got on one's nerves. A percussionist came on and off like a yo-yo, though since his acoustic sounds could not be heard, one wondered why.

And Maria Tanase? Well, we heard snatches of her voice, so heavily overlaid with strings that it never emerged clean and clear. We saw her face once or twice, in what looked like sweet period settings, but since the video artist's ego was as problematic as Balanescu's, every image had to be distorted and denatured to serve some inscrutable artistic "point". Those in the audience who came to encounter a diva were audibly hacked off; those who came because they were fans - and ready to worship a hat, a paunch and an ill-fitting grey suit - did their best to simulate a sort of rapture.

Yet Balanescu was once a member of the Arditti Quartet and a fine violinist. Why does he do this stuff, and why do some people seem to like it? Ironically, the final number showed what he is capable of - a graceful dance in which he created gentle pyrotechnics over a slowly turning bass - and that's why I award this over-hyped farrago one star, rather than none.

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