DGG 486 2095 (180g LP)
By Roy Gregory
Judging from the gentle insinuation of modernist classical music into the cultural mainstream of film and TV soundtracks, the general public is developing a taste for these sparse, atmospheric and often repetitive compositions. Perhaps several decades of sampling, sequencing and electronica have played their part. Perhaps it’s the modernist’s willingness to embrace electronic instrumentation and the music itself. Either way, it has generated a new wave of classical recordings, from the established (Max Richter) to the emerging (Caroline Shaw) – and in turn, those recordings have launched a new phalanx of performers.
Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen is one amongst a number of rising stars who a mutual affection for modernist compositions and composers. After a number of collaborative recordings, mainly with her brother, her first solo recording for DGG, entitled simply Mari (don’t be put off by the unfortunate cover art) mixed works by Bach – the Chaconne from Partita No. 2 amongst others – with Glass, Richter and Eno, throwing in a little Jóhann Jóhannsson and Péteris Vasks along the way. Looked at somewhat cynically you might conclude it’s the classical equivalent of a greatest hits album, a medley of familiar names designed to appeal to the widest possible audience. In some respects you’d be right. Her Bach is less than compelling, especially in comparison to the likes of Fischer, Haendel and of course, Martzy. But she comes alive on the modern pieces playing with just the right poise, power and intensity, a performance that holds the attention and draws you in. It’s no surprise that she’s a frequent collaborator with Richter amongst others. This double LP has spent some considerable time on the record deck since it arrived, so it should come as no surprise that Lys, her second release, was an automatic purchase.
Indicative of a growing confidence on the parts of both artist and label, this is a far wider ranging and more eclectic collection, dispensing with the classical ‘standards’ completely. Nor are the big-name modernists represented – so no Glass, no Richter and definitely no Eno. Instead, the single disc LP manages to deliver no fewer than 14 tracks, from 13 different (female) composers, with sources as varied as Hildegard von Bingen and Beyoncé Knowles (yes, THAT Beyoncé). But those two are outliers amidst an impressive array of modernist talent, five of whom created work specifically for this project.
The music itself is centred on Samuelsen’s solo instrument, with or without accompaniment, varying from piano, cello or string quartet, to harp and electronic instruments. Created during Covid the tracks are quiet, reflective yet intense and deeply moving. With works chosen by or fitted to the soloist like a glove, such is the standard of the music and the playing that it is difficult (almost churlish) to pick favourites. The Caroline Shaw track (Parts 4 and 5 of Plan & Elevation: The Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks) is a predictable stand-out, while Laura Masotto’s Sol Levante and Dobrinka Tabakova’s Nocturne the tracks that flank it, make for a compelling and beautiful first side, but that seems almost unfair to the rest of this album. Each time I play it, the layered patterns and repetitive figures seem to create new shapes and textures, new moods and insights. This is genuinely beautiful, haunting and affecting music, beautifully played – modernist classical music at its best and its most accessible. If you are already a fan of the genre, you’ll love this. If you are wondering what all the fuss is about, this is a great place to start.