Pianist Alexandre Tharaud brings haunting mood to 'Amour'

Alexandre Tharaud
The Los Angeles Times

The classical musician's first foray into cinema features solo pieces from Schubert, Beethoven and Bach, setting a tone that can even be felt in the film's silences.

By David Ng

There's a lot of pain and suffering in "Amour," the latest feature from Austrian director Michael Haneke. The award-winning movie, about an elderly couple facing mortality, can often be difficult to watch. But the misery is alleviated by moments of unexpected beauty from classical pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who performed the movie's soundtrack.

Tharaud, who hails from France and spent most of his career in Europe, has seen his international exposure rise in recent months thanks to "Amour" as well as two other recent releases.

His album "Le Boeuf sur le Toit" (The Ox on the Roof) is named after the famous Paris cabaret and is an ode to 1920s jazz and new music. The pianist also is featured on the companion soundtrack to the bestselling trilogy "Fifty Shades of Grey."

Tharaud said he had never worked on a movie before Haneke asked him to record the music for "Amour." He also plays a brief supporting role as a former student of the elderly couple (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), both retired musicians.

"Michael wanted a real pianist for the role. Usually in the movies you see actors who imitate playing the piano, and that usually doesn't work at all," Tharaud said in a phone interview, conducted in French, from New York, where he made his Carnegie Hall debut in the fall.

Tharaud recorded the music for the movie — solo pieces by Schubert, Beethoven and Bach — a month before filming began. He then spent three days shooting his part at a studio near Paris.

"Amour" is the first film by Haneke to have a soundtrack album recorded for the film. The album is scheduled to be released Jan. 22. The soundtrack to Haneke's 2001 movie "The Piano Teacher" used existing recordings, while his other movies have virtually no music at all.

Both "Amour" and "The Piano Teacher" place an emphasis on the music of Schubert. In "Amour," Tharaud performs two pieces by the 19th century Austrian composer, including the Impromptu Op. 90, No. 3.

"It's music that speaks about absence and death — that's why it's ideal for the film," Tharaud said. The pieces for "Amour" were chosen specifically by Haneke. "When we discussed it, he asked me if I wanted to change them, but I did exactly what he wanted," said the pianist.

Tharaud, 44, has lived in Paris his entire life. Fifteen years ago, he did something that some musicians might consider radical — he got rid of his piano.

"Most people do their work outside of their homes, so I'm the same," he said. "I need to work outside of my house — I work better that way. It's advice I give to other pianists who feel overwhelmed by their instrument."