Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 28, 2010 8:51 pm 
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A piano tuner's obsessiveness

This little documentary by a pair of Austrian filmmakers could be seen as a publicity film for German Steinway. It's about Stefan Knüpfer, a Steinway concert technician, and reveals their (i.e. Steinway's) obsessively high standards and extreme precision. His name is Stefan Knüpfer and he is a Steinway concert technician. Knüpfer is a piano tuner, but on a more exalted level. He is prepared to go one-on-one with famous concert pianists, making sure before they give a performance or make a recording that they have the piano they want and it's tuned the way they like it.

There are several pianists who appear in this film, but as we shall see, all but one are hardly more than filler.

There is a classical comedy team, a violinist and pianist, Igudesman & Joo, who put on a show called "A Little Nightmare Music." Knüpfer fools around with them a bit. Lang Lang comes in before a concert and tries the piano. It's commented that it's hard to get him off the stage before a concert; and then he's seen at the recital doing one of his embarrassingly showy performances, making a complete hash of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody and receiving an ovation from his devoted fans afterward. The very gifted young Austrian pianist Till Fellner appears and makes a few interesting comments on types of piano sound. Fellner is a pianist who plays with great fluidity and grace, sometimes a little too great: his performances, though fine, can emphasize fluency over revelation. I was hoping for more of revelation from this film. It can be had in other films about classical piano, such as documentaries about Sviatoslav Richter, several on Glenn Gould; or the wide-ranging film, The Art of Piano. This is not on that level.

Alfred Brendel appears briefly -- a very great pianist in his late years, and an Austrian. He makes a simple comment that for a concert a grand piano should be tuned to have equal response along its whole keyboard, and that's that.

Pianists are, as the film notes, usually dissatisfied, very often liking only a part of a performance, and finding minute flaws in the pianos they play on. They have chosen the piano for concerts when they could. Since a piano is a large and heavy instrument that's hard to move around, that hasn't always been possible. Horowitz had his own specially designed piano that traveled with him, and in the Fifties before an early Columbia recording session a young Glenn Gould was filmed picking out a piano from a warehouse full of them at Steinway in New York. Gould seemed to favor "clarity" of sound for recording Bach. (Of course the terminology on these matters tends to be sui generis and moot.)

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a French classical pianist fluent in German, is the man who provided Pianomania with its substance and its drama. Knüpfer and Aimard were made for each other. They are both to an equal degree obsessively precise about piano sound and piano tuning. One can frankly say they're both equally neurotic. Aimard is getting ready to record Bach's austere final keyboard work, The Art of the Fugue, on a modern piano. He seems to have some sort of idea, perhaps inspired by Knüpfer's willingness to please, of using several different pianos in the course of the recording, one to have an "organ" sound, another to have a "clavicord" sound, and several others tuned to other sounds. It's never quite fully spelled out. No doubt about the fact that Aimard has a precise and obsessive ear. Knüpfer exclaims that he can spot minute changes in tuning instantly without being told. And best of all for Knüpfer, Aimard is never happy. He has a way of saying "fine," and then after a pause, "Frage..." (Question...) And after that he'll express a doubt, a worry. And that may lead to the whole piano's being moved out in favor of another one that has to be hunted down in a warehouse -- as Knüpfer nervously does a heavy piano seat for Lang Lang, though it's not clear whether Lang Lang uses it or not.

For the "organ' sound, Knüpfer resorts to a system of three plastic baffles on the piano, meant to expand the sound. At the point when the two recording engineers come on the scene things become a more grounded in reality, however. They seem to view all this fuss over the precise details of the pianos as like the medieval question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The baffles turn out to be a disaster. They were an idea to project sound out in a certain way to the audience of a concert. Things work quite differently with a system of microphones being used to catch the sound. It's never fully clear what the different piano sounds that Aimard wanted were, and how he used them. What is clear that he and Knüpfer enjoy working together -- and that Knüpfer can do all sorts of things to alter piano sound. When he finds out that the hammers of a piano soon to be used in performance are seven tenths of a millimeter off, he freaks out. He winds up having new ones sent to him, and stays up all night to install them. He relates that once a Japanese engineer found a big lump of dust inside the works of one of "his" pianos. He said, "Put it back!" and points out that anything you move can change the sound and throw it off. He sometimes wiggles things around, or puts little dabs of cotton along the strings.

Ultimately this little documentary, for all its interesting obsessiveness, is a disappointment. It would have been better if it had been more instructive, more wide-ranging. There is not enough about music. Even Aimard's recording of Bach's Art of the Fugue -- the project that is the film's greatest drama and gets Knüpfer in such a state of nervous excitement -- isn't really followed through on. What did it sound like? Were the different piano sounds achieved? We don't find out. And Pianomania is not enough about pianists. All this fuss and precision mean little without great pianists to profit from them. Lang Lang's gyrations tell us nothing. Brendel and Fellner tell us something, but it would be better to hear from a real range of classical pianists about piano sound and to see them interact with Knüpfer. In between sequences the filmmakers insert a series of stills of the the city where Knüpfer is working. It's just postcard stuff, and a commonplace kind of filler for films on classical music.

Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival 2010, where it won the award for Best Documentary Feature. The prize for Best Investigative Documentary Feature went to Lixin Fan's Last Train Home.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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