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."
Released in October, "Le Boeuf sur le Toit" is a personal passion project for Tharaud, who has long been fascinated by the historic Parisian venue. The cabaret — an antecedent of sorts to New York's trendy Le Poisson Rouge — served as a cultural gathering place as well as an incubator for jazz and new music.
"It was a moment in French history, but there are few written things about it. So I wanted to pay homage in some way," said Tharaud.
The album features Tharaud playing an eclectic assortment of music that would have been performed at the Parisian hot spot, such as pieces by Gershwin, Ravel and Cole Porter.
Tharaud is also one of several artists featured on the recent soundtrack companion to "Fifty Shades of Grey," a compilation of classical pieces that are referenced in E.L. James' naughty trilogy of novels.
EMI, which produced the album and has a relationship with Tharaud, chose an existing recording of the pianist performing the Adagio movement from Bach's Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, with Les Violons du Roy.
"Bach is [James'] favorite composer. And she's a fan of Alexandre's," said Wendy Ong, head of classics at EMI. Ong said that the author chose the pieces from the novels and that EMI allowed her to pick recordings from its vault.
The "Fifty Shades" album has been a commercial success, debuting in September in the No. 1 spots of Billboard's classical charts.
Tharaud had not yet read the novel at the time of the interview, since it had just been published in France. "I know the entire planet is talking about it," he said.
"Amour," which has been picking up awards since it received the Palme d'Or at Cannes in May, is heavily favored for an Oscar nomination.
Tharaud said the movie contains "actually very little music. Maybe just several minutes. But [the music] is also there in the silences, in the looks between the characters. I think it's poetic — it's music born from the silence."