Having previously listened to Ólafur Arnalds’ sorrowful, reflective works for piano, strings and electronics, I was not without cynical apprehension that the evening’s performance had the potential to be sentimental to the point of tawdry. However, his emotive compositions make for a truly captivating live performance, transporting a sold out audience to the frozen landscape of Arnalds’ native Iceland.
The instrumental pieces, including some of the score from popular television programme Broadchurch, were mostly indistinguishable, a dreamy haze of the conventions of ‘emotional’ music; simple, repeated phrases, slowly being layered across the ensemble, and sustained notes mournfully harmonised over the string quartet with excessive vibrato and gradual crescendos building to almost painful climaxes, only for the ensemble to drop out and leave Arnalds alone on the piano, a bittersweet release. However, it was Arnalds subtle crafting of these theoretical clichés that made it impossible to be derisive – the music was genuinely enchanting, as was the visual spectacle.
Sensitive lighting and small details, such as the removal of the front board from the upright piano to allow the audience to see the hammers beating against the strings, harmonised with the music to create a hypnotising, immersive experience. Only the vocal pieces from the 2013 album For Now I am Winter ventured into uncomfortably theatrical territory. Compositions such as ‘Old Skin’ incorporate a passionate male vocalist and reverberating synthesised drums, to what is, unfortunately, an excruciatingly melodramatic effect.
Nevertheless, interspersed with anecdotes from a charmingly shy Arnalds – “A lot of my stories start with vodka…and then something happens and there is a song…I should look into that” – these works were made bearable. The show ended with ‘Lag Fyrir Ömmu” (‘Song for Grandma’), a tender piano piece with a suitably wistful melody, demonstrating how touching Arnalds’ more minimalistic compositions can be. His music is undoubtedly sentimental, but that’s the point. It’s Neo-Romantic, deliberately crafted to conjure up an image or the feeling of a place. Cynicisms aside, this performance was sincerely moving.