ALBUM REVIEW: Ólafur Arnalds’ “The Chopin Project”

by Rachele Hales

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Ólafur Arnalds popped up on my radar in 2009 when he started a project of writing a new composition every day for a week and immediately made each one available online. The compositions were later officially released in the collection “Found Songs.” He did not undertake the same experiment for his latest release, The Chopin Project, instead teasing his fans with mysterious updates via Twitter along with his coconspirator/barefoot pianist extraordinaire, Alice Sara Ott. For Arnalds fans the waiting was agony, but all good things…

As a youngster playing in hardcore/metal bands, Arnalds frequently visited his grandmother and was exposed to classical music in her home. “She would always make me listen to Chopin,” he writes in the liner notes, “if it had been my parents forcing classical music down my throat at that time in my life I probably would have puked on their face. But, I guess out of respect for my grandmother, I always listened with her and slowly it started to grow on me.” After his grandmother passed away the Chopin-shaped fragment of his heart was aching to be expressed.

All Chopin recordings sounded the same to him. With nearly all classical recordings focused on capturing a perfect performance and using technology to process that performance into something so polished it no longer feels authentic, Arnalds questioned why technology itself was never used as part of the interpretation. “Why can’t the microphones, the room – the sound – also be a performer? Why would all of these factors need to stay invisible? And why would a ‘good’ classical piano sound naturally have to be the silvery, brilliant concert grand sound that we have on classical recordings today [when] we know that pianos of the 19th century sounded so very different?” Armed with a pocketful of excellent questions and a mission to break the norm, he partnered with Ott and together they explored Reykjavik searching for vintage recording equipment, unusual pianos, and venues that would act as performers themselves in Arnalds & Ott’s interpretations. Then came the recording.

“Verses” is our introduction to the album. It’s a new composition by Arnalds that borrows from Chopin’s “Piano Sonata No. 3 (Largo),” which immediately follows as track 2. You know how when you were in junior high sometimes you bought a new album that you loved so much you didn’t even want to tell anyone about it? You just locked your door and stayed in your bedroom all night, lying in your bed, reading the liner notes, listening to the album over and over? “Verses” is exactly like that. It is intimate and sad with the trademark Arnalds atmosphere and makes you just want to stay inside journaling for hours and hours.

The entire album has that quality – it’s just one glorious, delicate piece after another. From the gentle shoosh-shoosh in “Reminiscence” (during which there’s a point where you can even hear a performer taking in breath) to the distant chatter and rainfall heard in “Nocturne in G Minor,” the recordings make the listener feel close to the piano – in the same room, even – and so very close to the music. Several tracks use Chopin as a jumping off point, which turns the album as a whole into a dreamlike story arc you wish would never end.

Be sure to purchase this album if you like what you hear!

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