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Album Review: The Chopin Variations
Chad Lawson
Cover image of the album The Chopin Variations by Chad Lawson
The Chopin Variations
Chad Lawson
2014 / Hillset Records
2 discs: 55 minutes each
Review by Kathy Parsons
Chad Lawson’s The Chopin Variations is a double-album that I’ve been anxiously awaiting. A big fan of Chad Lawson and his music since I first heard it several years ago, the pairing of his velvet piano touch with Chopin’s music sounded like a true match made in heaven. Not only is Chopin one of my favorite classical composers, the ten compositions are pieces that I’ve played many times, love dearly, and know intimately. That could be dangerous, but I have such faith in Lawson’s integrity as an artist and music innovator that I knew this would be a very different listening experience, leaving expectations of what the music should sound like in the other room. The music on the two discs is the same, but Disc 1 includes Lawson on piano, Judy Kang on violin and Rubin Kodheli on cello; Disc 2 is solo piano.

What seems to be the biggest stumbling block for many listeners is the actual sound of the piano. A father with two very young children, Lawson often plays and records his piano very late into the night. Not wanting to disturb the sleep of his family, he places felt between the strings of his Steinway to quiet the sound and percussive effects. Because of the muted sound, the microphones need to be placed closer than usual to the hammers of the piano, causing them to also pick up the internal sounds of the piano being played - the soft whoosh of the pedal, occasional creaks and pops, and other sounds that most recording engineers work hard to eliminate. Over time, Lawson found that he loves this sound and recorded his 2013 release The Space Between with the piano strings muted, calling it “the most honest music I have been given.” Listening to the solo piano disc especially, I was struck with the thought that this was likely how Chopin would have arranged and performed this music had he lived in the 21st century. Very sickly most of his life, his performances were known to be very difficult to hear. The pianos of his time were also much more delicate than today’s instruments, so despite Lawson’s arrangements being somewhat different from the originals, it is likely that his performance is quite similar to how Chopin himself played them nearly two hundred years ago.

With muted strings, there are some very intriguing effects that sometimes make the piano sound like an acoustic guitar or even a harp, while the movement of the dampers creates a sound not unlike breathing. On Disc 1, the violin and cello are both very minimal, adding tonal color and texture to the piano. One might think that these two orchestral instruments would make the music sound more classical, but I think they actually update the music quite beautifully in ways that are more ambient than melodic. The ten tracks are a combination of nocturnes, preludes, waltzes, and a mazurka, all given a beautifully tender treatment that makes the music suitable for relaxing background music as well as a wonderful new take on some of Chopin’s best-loved piano music. I wholeheartedly applaud Chad Lawson for his brave new vision and courage to see it through. The Chopin Variations is available from chadlawson.com, Amazon, iTunes, and CD Baby. Very highly recommended to those open to a new approach to the piano and Chopin’s music.
February 1, 2015
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