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Pianomania (First Run Features, NR)

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pianomania sqYou might not think there is all that much to say about piano tuning, but Pianomania will convince you otherwise. Not only is each piano different, but each pianist also has his or her own expectations about touch and feel.

 

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There’s something fascinating about watching a craftsman at work, and it’s a wonder more feature film directors don’t take advantage of this. Anton Corbijn gets it, and the lengthy shots of George Clooney working in his gunsmith’s shop in The American made all the difference between a beautifully shot but otherwise ordinary thriller and something approaching a work of art.

Fortunately, documentary directors already understand the appeal of watching skill in action, and Pianomania capitalizes on this by allowing us to observe Stefan Knüpfer, the Chief Technician and Master Tuner for Steinway in Vienna, as he goes about his work. Knüpfer is in charge of the pianos for the Vienna Concert House, and that means meeting the demands of some of the most high-strung and demanding virtuosos in the world, including Alfred Brendel, Lang Lang, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard.

You might not think there is all that much to say about piano tuning, but Pianomania will convince you otherwise. Not only is each piano different (Knüpfer refers to them by number, and the sale of “109” constitutes a crisis in the world of this film), but each pianist also has his or her own expectations about touch and feel. You can’t really blame them: Unlike most musicians, touring pianists generally do not travel with their own instrument, so it’s crucial the instrument they perform on is adjusted to the sound and feel to which they are accustomed. And that’s not at all a given: Those who perform in less-grand venues are familiar with the term “piano-shaped object,” referring to something which looks like a piano but doesn’t really sound or feel like one.

Knüpfer has a difficult job because, although he’s among the best in the world at what he does, he has to take himself out of the picture, emotionally speaking, when interacting with the soloists who will be performing on the Steinways he cares for. They’re the show and he is there to serve them, which he does with infinite grace and skill. When it comes to getting the job done, nothing is beneath Knüpfer, whether it’s hunting down a piano bench to suit Lang Lang or supervising the transport of a grand piano. He also has a sense of humor, which directors Lillian Franck and Robert Cibis let us see when Knüpfer is out of earshot of his demanding customers.

The chief drama of Pianomania is provided by the preparations for a recording of The Art of the Fugue by Pierre-Laurent Aimard. He wants a different sound for every piece, and Knüpfer tries all kinds of experiments and adjustments to meet his demands. As an early music person myself, I would be tempted to tell Aimard that a modern concert grand is not an appropriate instrument for this particular piece of music, but that’s one reason among many that I’m glad I don’t hold Knüpfer’s job. I’m very happy to watch him at work, however, and if you have any interest in either classical music or craftsmanship, you’ll probably agree. | Sarah Boslaugh

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