Monday, August 20, 2012

Movie Review: Pianomania

Directed by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis. 2009.

Stefan Knüpfer is not a famous man. His name graces no concert marquees or programs. Somewhere at the back of an unread CD insert, perhaps, he is listed as, "Steinway Technical Director," an appellation which tells us nothing of either his gift or his skill. Mr. Knüpfer's gift is a set of golden ears, attentive to the subtlest overtones and shades of pitch. His skill is a peerless finesse for tuning that Cadillac of the concert hall, the Steinway D.

At the piano Knüpfer is quite a sight certainly for the layman but even for a musician: endlessly ratcheting at a string, trying to tune away a little sharpness, or fidgeting at a hammer trying, to coax out an overtone. Yet for all of the excruciating harmonic minutiae there is never any dullness to Knüpfer or his task. He has the aficionado's enthusiasm and the master's attention to detail and watching him work is an impressive sight. Whether tuning the strings for an elusive tone or measuring hammers to the millimeter, we see, perhaps for the first time, a mastery of this machine quite distinct from that of the pianist. And indeed the piano is a machine, however much we might restrict our notion of machines to boxes of cogs and vast industrial apparatuses. There is at any rate little doubt when in a bravura moment Knüpfer hauls out the entire action of the piano, revealing the circuitous complexity of the massive sound machine, his little kingdom.

As king, however, Mr. Knüpfer also serves, and he serves the needs of the piano's more flamboyant master, the pianist. Flamboyant and particular, so much in fact that the pianists' presence in Pianomania is downright chaffing. Which wants a little more sharpness here, a little less there. Who wants a wider sound, or a narrower sound, or something in between. Brighten this overtone, clean up that decay. One is too thin, another full but too late. Not all of the pianists make so many or such specific requests. Alfred Brendel and Lang Lang make a few of each, Rudolf Buchbinder practically none, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, well let us say the majority of the film traces his quest for the perfect pianos on which to record Bach's Art of Fugue. He wants one that sounds like a harpsichord, another like a clavichord, another like an organ. . . a pursuit which reaches an absurd apex when he requests a piano which is more banal.

Some of these scenes hit a comedic pitch as the two struggle to describe acoustic phenomena with a nonexistent vocabulary. At one point Knüpfer resorts to some hand gestures which become so silly he and the engineers burst out laughter. The precise temperament Aimard seeks may seem absurd to us, it certainly did to me, but Knüpfer is forgiving. "The moment his fingers touch the keys," Knüpfer says, "he tells you exactly what you did. It's fascinating."

Music is not at the center of every moment of Pianomania, however, especially when Mr. Knüpfer meets his most raucous client, comedian-pianist Hyung-Ki Joo. After tuning the instrument, the two share ideas for some musical skits a la Victor Borge and Knüpf plays quite a laugh, painstakingly replacing one of the piano's legs with. . . well I won't spoil it.

Pianomania, though, is not a paean for master tuners or a wagging finger at prima donna pianists. If anything Knüpfer is sympathetic to the pianist's endless quest to find just once in the world the perfect tone in his head. Pianomania then is an ode to beauty, the pursuit of its pure form in pure tones, and the instruments which, if cared for and wisely played, can produce such immaculate sounds. Such is his affection for a beautiful tone, Knüpfer confesses, that he turns off the radio when he can't stand the bad sound coming out of it. Mania perhaps, but being held by beauty is a rapturous madness.

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