Unlike the piano – which unless creatively modified is confined to the 12 pitches of the Western chromatic scale – the strings have access to the notes between the notes. This freedom allows for all manner of expressive wobbling, bending, and sliding.
The emotional potential of stringed instruments is only magnified when they gather in number. While a lone violin can be fragile and intimate, there are few forces on earth more powerful than a strings section in full flight.
We have chosen 10 essential neo-classical albums that showcase the strings – in all their “in-between-the-notes”, wobbly, bendy, slidy glory.
1. Recomposed by Max Richter – Vivaldi, The Four Seasons (2012)
Max Richter’s breakthrough moment. The composer took on the challenge of “recomposing” one of the finest and most popular works for strings of all time – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. The recording of Richter’s recomposition topped the classical charts in 22 countries, and introduced Max Richter’s music to millions of fans worldwide.
Motifs from Vivaldi’s 18th-century work become fragments that Richter crushes and repeats in crystalline forms. Rhythmic intensity is dialled up, so too the bass section – now supported in the low sub frequencies by a Moog synthesiser.
2. Hildur Guðnadóttir – Saman (2014)
Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir shot to international recognition following her scores for HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries and the Hollywood film Joker. These two projects scored Guðnadóttir wins at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Emmy Awards, Grammy awards, and the BAFTAS.
Mainstream success aside, digging into the cellist-composer’s impressive back catalogue of solo albums reveals a treasure trove of intimate, emotional and creative instrumental music. Throughout her 2014 album Saman, the cello plays the role of lead vocalist, droning accompaniment, ambient noisemaker, and everything in between.
3. Recomposed by Peter Gregson – Bach, The Cello Suites (2018)
In the second “recomposed” album on this list, Scottish cellist and composer Peter Gregson takes on the iconic Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach. Taking a similar approach to Max Richter – Gregson breaks the original work into small melodic fragments.
Gregson’s multi-tracked cello is placed within a lush, ambient soundstage – enveloped in fluttering synthesisers and a generous serving of reverberation. The result is a kind of romantic minimalism, satisfyingly in both structural integrity, melody, and atmosphere.
4. Remy van Kesteren – Shadows (2019)
A classically trained musician, Dutch harpist Remy van Kesteren’s musical worldview was blown wide open by a studio mishap. Forgetting to bring his harp to a recording session, van Kesteren was forced to improvise, making music with whichever instruments were at his disposal.
The harpist was now playing synthesisers, programming drum loops, using guitar effects, and singing through a vocoder. And in doing so, van Kesteren realised that his musical creativity was not defined by his training, or his instrument of choice, but by his musical intuition. So began a journey of creative discovery and the resulting album Shadows, in which Remy’s harp is pulled firmly into the 21st Century.
5. Mari Samuelsen – Nordic Noir (2017)
On Nordic Noir, Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen takes on the music of Scandinavia. This includes neo-classical mainstay Ólafur Arnalds, Danish composer Frans Bak (best known for his work on Scandi-noir crime drama The Killing), Johan Söderqvist (Let the Right One In) and the Estonian Arvo Pärt (pioneer of “new simplicity”).
The resulting collection of works for string orchestra and solo violin is dark, mysterious, and totally Scandi-chic.
6. Luke Howard – Open Heart Story (2018)
“Written at a time of introspection and self-reflection, Open Heart Story, explores fragmented relationships, childhood memories and getting older”. Nominated for an ARIA award in Luke Howard’s native Australia, the album is a rich and cinematic musical statement.
Open Heart Story alternates between intimate works for piano, and emotional arrangements for string orchestra. Strings highlights include the ‘Bear Story II’ (composed for a documentary that never materialised) and ‘Hymn’ (in which the strings channel the rich sound of a choir).
7. Zoë Keating – Into The Trees (2010)
Zoë Keating gained widespread recognition in the mid 2000s as an artist who fully capitalised on the new career pathways offered by the internet. “Happily unsigned and independent” Keating proudly stated that she “bought [her] house with iTunes”.
Even as the turbulent world of digital music settled into a streaming economy, Keating’s music did not lose any of it’s urgency or relevance. Often drawing on the mystic sounds of celtic folk music and drawing on the punk energy of indie-pop, Keating and her cello forged an unapologetically independent path into the unknown.
8. Ólafur Arnalds – re:member – string quartets (2019)
On this three-track EP, Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds presents three tracks from his album re:member in spare and intimate arrangements for string quartet. For an artist so at home in the recording studio, these tracks are notable for their omission of production trickery. The strings are presented in vulnerable clarity.
9. Anoushka Shankar – Love Letters (2020)
On 2020’s Love Letters EP Sitarist Anoushka Shankar presents her modern take on the tradition of Indian Classical music. And few artists can lay claim to such impressive heritage in this millennia-old musical tradition – Anoushka is the daughter of Sitar legend Ravi Shankar.
On Love Letters, Anoushka pairs her mysterious and expressive sitar work with guest vocalists Alev Lenz, Ibeyi, and Shipa Rao.
10. Clint Mansell & Kronos Quartet – Requiem For A Dream Soundtrack (2000)
‘Lux Aerterna’ is the desperate theme song to Darren Aronofsky’s iconic work of kinetic filmmaking – Requiem For A Dream. The work has since gone on to become a Hollywood trope, with its distinctive melody heard in bombastic trailers for Hollywood blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Da Vinci Code, and I Am Legend.
However ‘Lux Aerterna’ can be heard in its proper context in Clint Mansell’s score to Requiem For A Dream, performed intuitively by contemporary music champions Kronos Quartet.