Composer Olafur Arnalds took the bold bet to re-write Chopin’s music. In a pop or rock, we would say that he “covered” Chopin: he brings a new reading of music that is 175 years old. That’s something that classical musicians usually don’t do. They stick to the music sheet, interpreting (or should we say slightly personalizing) what the Polish romantic pianist (1810-1849) wrote, mostly in France. Classical music people never go that far into the interpretation.

alice sara ott

Beautiful and elegant pianist Alice Sara Ott has a solid classical background. Born in Munich from a Japanese mother and German father, she decided to become a pianist at age 3, after attending a concert. She performed in youth competition at age 5. By 12, she had won numerous awards and made recordings of works by Liszt and Chopin.

Here is more information on the project, before we dig into the music.

 

Today’s listener doesn’t need to know Chopin or how different Arnalds plays or reads his music to appreciate this magnificent album. The beautiful Piano Sonata no 3 (largo) is a beautiful moment of piano solo that comes close to Érik Satie’s work. Sensiblility, emotion, peace of mind… Simply beautiful.

Some tracks are Chopin’s work, re-arranged, while others are Arnald’s compositions, written in the spirit of the Polish master. Many music pieces are played on the violins as well. Verses and the Nocturne in C Sharp Minor are noble and elegant tracks that gracefully drop in one’s ear. Arnalds and Ott’s music ranks among the most beautiful moments that we’ve had in recent years in “popular classical” music, if you include the works of innovating musicians like Gonzales, Brian Eno and Steve Roach.

 

Later, on Chopin’s Nocturne in G minor, Arnalds brings Ott’s piano under the rain to have a different effect on the listening experience. The mic recording the music isn’t glued to the instrument: it captures the surrounding elements and even bits of conversation of people who happen to be around. A little John Cale nod: music isn’t just what’s played, it’s all that we hear. What we feel is a combination of what’s within the listener and around him. We focus on the music played but there’s also the musician’s breathing (Eyes Shut / Nocturne in C minor (after Chopin)), wood squeeking, etc

Moments like (Reminiscence (after Chopin)) are simply to cry for as they are softly and tenderly played with the elegance of Scandinavian people, and a touch of spleen that reaches the soul. You’ll never find a cheezy note on “The Chopin Project”, it’s all beauty, emotion and artwork.

 

Very close to Érik Satie’s work (Largo), the 29 year-old pianist from Iceland knows how to let his music breathe. There’s always a fine line between the Satie-type of classical piano and easy listening. Mindful ears will notice the classical pianist’s touch: even if modulating in various degrees of intensity, he will never fall into the cheesy romantic ways of playing of the easy-listening musician. It’s a matter of good taste and the quality of execution that makes the difference.

The quality of the music writing is also key. Themes composed by Olafur Arnalds are rich and elaborate. The multi-instrumentist is an award winning musician. You absolutely can’t guess it while listening at “The Chopin Project”, but Arnalds once was the drummer of heavy hardcore bands Fighting Shit and Celestine! No traces of metal here. Magnets wouldn’t stick.

 

Arnalds came to classical music a bit by accident. He had composed intros and outros for German metal band Heaven Shall Burn that met with huge success in 2004. He later toured with fellow Islandic compatriots Sigur Rós in 2008. Arnalds also formed an electronic music project, entitled Kiasmos, with compatriote Janus Rasmussen from the electro-pop band Bloodgroup. He also wrote for ballet, movies and commercials.

Olafur Arnalds is clearly not limiting himself to one genre. He also blends elements of different musical currents. On Nocturne in G Minor, he uses lo-fi recording technics to sound like a demo, adding unidentifiable background noise (maybe a kids’ playground?) creating unique ambiance. He isn’t afraid of concepts: in April of 2009, he composed and released one song a day, for a week, which became his “Found Songs” theme.

olafur arnalds alice sara ott chopin

But most importantly, more than concepts and originality, his music is really beautiful. On songs like Eyes Shut – Nocturne in C Minor, they elevate the listener’s soul with the piano. When listening to these types of melodies, that somehow sound familiar but aren’t, one’s mind simply floats, drifting away to imaginary landscapes.

A beautiful album. On the top of my list for best records of 2015.

OLAFUR ARNALDS & ALICE SARA OTT
The Chopin Project
(Mercury Classics, 2015)

-Genre: classical music revisited
-In the same spirit as Gonzales, Jurgen Knieper on “Wings of Desire” soundtrack

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Listen to videos on the artist’s YouTube channel

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About The Author

Nicolas Pelletier
Fondateur et rédacteur en chef
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Mélomane invétéré et rédacteur agréé, Nicolas pratique la critique en mode olympique: il parle de tout, tout le temps, depuis 1991. Il a publié 4 500 critiques de disques et concerts dont 1100 chez emoragei magazine et 600 sur enMusique.ca, dont il a également été le rédacteur en chef de 2009 à 2014. Nicolas a publié "Les perles rares et les grands crus de la musique" en janvier 2013, un ouvrage de 1250 pages en deux tomes.