Eva Quartet Minka
Review by Andrew Cronshaw
"Minka E Rano Stanala" (excerpt)
Its origins, vocal techniques and raison d’être are in Bulgaria’s villages, but the thrilling Bulgarian female vocal ensemble sound had already been through an organizing, arranging and conducting process when it became famous via the Bulgarian Radio choir, which gained the title Le Mystère Des Voix Bulgares from the releases by Swiss musician and record label owner Marcel Cellier (who, incidentally, also brought the wonderful early, pre-kitsch recordings of Romanian panpipes virtuoso George Zamfir to the wider world).
The members of Eva Quartet, formed in 1995, were all members of that choir, but they came together through their mutual involvement in the Orthodox Church, and in their quartet eschewed the traditional folk costumes for black-dressed elegance and a presentation that moved them into a more classical context, while keeping the traditional-rooted uniqueness.
I last reviewed an Eva Quartet album, their 2002 Harmonies in fRoots magazine. Checking back, I see I was a bit sniffy, writing, "They sing well, but aren’t yet in the same league as the great singers of the previous generation." Well, nearly two decades on, still with the original line-up (Gergana Dimitrova, Sofia Kovacheva, Evelina Hristova and Daniela Stoitchkova), they’ve developed and matured magnificently, creating a place and sound of their own with a repertoire of strong material from tradition and the work of recent and contemporary composers and arrangers.
Minka is their first release since 2012’s The Arch, a collaboration recorded with the late and very much lamented Hector Zazou just before his untimely death in 2008.
A couple of the songs are group arrangements, and the striking up-tempo "Yova" was composed by the group’s soprano Gergana Dimitrova. The rest of the fourteen pieces are arranged by others, including four by Dimitar Hristov, current director of the National Radio Folk Orchestra, and two, of beautiful Rhodope mountains material, by kaval master Kostadin Genchev. For all the tracks they have a conductor too.
This is clever, meticulously made music, as is that of a classical vocal ensemble, but the voices yearn, surge, linger, interlock, drone and counterpoint, and on the up-tempo pieces fizz and chatter, in ways that no Western-classical ensembles, even the progressive ones, match in style or sound. They choose to use vocal sounds that are more cultivated and largely not as edgy as those of the village singers, nor of most of the legendary Mystère singers of the past (who were recruited from the villages, and brought the material with them), but they still have that extraordinary and moving Bulgarian polyphonic sound.
"Gospodi, Pomiluy" (excerpt)
In the dark "Gospodi, Pomiluy," a 10th/11th century Orthodox chorale that reflects the group’s church origins, they hold a drone for over a minute, taking over from one another as each pauses for breath so the drone is seamlessly unbroken. All the tracks are unaccompanied, apart from one touch of drum, and in "Leme Dreme" by Dimitar Hristov there’s gadulka, its player un-named but I’d guess Hristov himself. The short snappy piece of fast wordless vocalizing that follows it, "Bez Dumi," is also one of his compositions.
While, it has to be said, since the end of Communism and its state support there has been some sub-Koutev sameyness, and occasional rather tacky directions or experimental collaborative ventures made by Bulgarian choirs, what the smaller unit of Eva Quartet, with their arrangers, have gone on to develop from traditional roots is a music of intensity, beauty, high skill, and international stature.