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For Your Consideration: 'Pianomania'

The Austrian documentary Pianomania: In Search of the Perfect Sound, from 2009, has received a very limited release this summer in the United States. (The Goethe-Institut hosted a one-time screening of the movie last year.) It has had mostly tepid reviews, generally by film critics who are not really classical music-heads, and the gross has been low, even for a documentary about something that is fairly esoteric. Directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck, the film follows the nerve-wracking work of Steinway piano technician Stefan Knüpfer, as he fine-tunes his company's finest concert grand pianos for some of the best pianists in the world to play in the concert halls of Vienna. Like Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037, from 2007, it is something that anyone with a love of the piano must see.

Fortunately, for those who are not piano mavens, the film does not delve too far into the minutiae of what Knüpfer does. There are no technical explanations of the instrument's action and not too much focus on the many small tweaks and adjustments that the technician can make. What the film does trace is the interaction between Knüpfer and the pianists he works for, as well as the recording engineers and producers, sound technicians, and even piano movers -- the people behind the scenes who make great concerts and recordings happen. The main subject is the exacting search of Pierre-Laurent Aimard to find the right sounds for his rather wonderful recording of Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge. A work that is generally recognized to have been intended for the keyboard, it has gestures that suggest Bach had in mind at least references to or evocations of larger ensembles of instruments, and it is those various colors, or at least hints of them, that Aimard wants brought out in the piano he is playing. Anyone who enjoyed Aimard's recording or who loves to dissect the finest particles of sound will be captivated as Aimard goes in search of sounds, from a single piano, that evoke harpsichord, clavichord, organ, chamber music, and so on. To see Aimard's approach to the work made me appreciate the recording, and his live performance of the work, in a new light.

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Knüpfer frets the most in his sessions with Aimard, fascinated from a scientific, technical point of view at how precisely the pianist hears every gradation of sound and feels it in the mechanism of the instrument. Knüpfer even makes a visit to hear some historical harpsichords and clavichords played by a specialist, recognizing his own deficit in that area as he tries to come up with the sound "families" that Aimard wants. This section of the movie makes so clear the difference between those small, intimate instruments and the wild beast that is the piano -- its method of producing sound so complicated, its tone so vast and ferocious, and its size so vast that it requires three strong people just to move it. All of the Steinways in the film are identified by three-digit numbers attached to them, and they are captioned by these monikers in the same way the artists are when they appear.

By contrast to Aimard, other pianists require less nuance once they have found the sound that pleases their ears: a bright tanginess for Lang Lang, an even smoothness top to bottom for Alfred Brendel (then in his final year of performing), a sense of magic for Julius Drake (shown rehearsing a Lied with tenor Ian Bostridge). Only the sensitive Austrian pianist Till Fellner, another Ionarts favorite who once referred to a local embassy's prize piano as firewood, comes close to Aimard's level of finicky meticulousness. Throughout, Knüpfer leavens the movie with his own gentle wit, even as he has to dash up and down stairs and call in favors to satisfy a pianist's demands (Aimard is not "neurotic," he insists, he is "specialized"). In one of the best moments, Knüpfer takes almost vicious delight in recounting the story of telling Aimard that the Steinway he played at a triumphant concert was to be sold, that he would never play it again. These moments of levity help brighten a film that could be overwhelmed by Knüpfer's own "specialized" obsessions, but he takes just as seriously an entirely different sort of work, as he helps keyboard clown Hyung-Ki Joo work up some new sketches for his Victor Borge-like piano comedy sketches.

In the Washington area, Pianomania is screening only at the E St. Cinema and only through this Thursday.

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