Pianomania: Love, Perfection and a Little Bit of Madness
Pianomania is a documentary following the work of Stefan Knüpfer, Steinway's master tuner in Vienna. It focuses on his attempts to personalise an instrument for the endlessly fastidious French concert pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, as he prepares to record JS Bach's mighty contrapuntal essay, The Art of Fugue. A documentary about piano tuning might not capture everyone's imagination, but for anyone who loves the piano and the mysteries of its sound Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck's film is a rare and fascinating treat.
Over the last twenty years, Knüpfer has worked with just about every world-class pianist you care to name. Each has their own individual ideas and concerns about the sound and feel of the instruments they play, and each is extremely difficult to please with hyper-sensitive demands about tone, touch and resonance. You'd be forgiven for thinking that tuning is simply a question of adjusting tension in a piano's strings, but the tuner's art includes psychology, superstition and intuition as well as mere hands-on practical skills.
Lang Lang and Alfred Brendel also appear in the film, and Knüpfer displays monk-like patience and emits waves of empathy and reassurance as he nurses them towards the colours that they crave. Pianists adore him, because he is as obsessed with the idea of the perfect sound as they are (although, in a jet-lagged Lang Lang's case, a stout bench that won't collapse beneath him is all that's requested before he attacks a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody as if trying to chop the keyboard into matchwood with his bare hands!).
The difficulty of verbalizing a problem with sound frequently arises, as does expressing what one hears, or doesn't hear, in words. And, of course, there's the small matter of moving an instrument that weighs half a ton! But amid this tension, Knüpfer's sense of humour shines through (for example, when he plays a prank with a precious violin). Pianomania is a fabulous film, enthralling, revealing and at times nail-biting. It's a superb tour of the piano, and of the mind of a great pianist and the craft of a great technician.