Monday, October 31, 2011

Pianomania: Give the Tuner Some

It is a company committed to tradition and excellence. Each Steinway Piano is hand assembled by craftsmen, conscious they are creating heirlooms and altarpieces. That lack of mechanization creates infinitesimal differences between each instrument. This is a good thing, because it gives each piano a distinctive personality. Steinway chief technician and tuner Stefan Knüpfer is a master at matching concert pianos with world class musicians and calibrating their individual sounds for the music to be performed. Filmmakers Lilian Franck & Robert Cibis document Knüpfer’s passionate perfectionism in Pianomania (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Based in Vienna, Knüpfer works with some of the world’s most demanding artists, instinctively understanding requests that sound baffling vague. At one point, Knüpfer determines how to best tune one of Steinway’s concert grands to best evoke the sound of the clavicle for Pierre-Laurent Aimard. The French pianist is preparing for an ambitious Bach recording that will present many more unusual challenges for Knüpfer. Simultaneously, he is also working with Lang Lang and Alfred Brendel (in what will be one of his final concert appearances).

In a sense, Pianomania is somewhat akin to El Bulli and Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, quietly observing as an elite artisan goes about his creative business. Yet, this behind-the-scenes look at Steinway works so much better than those other films, because Knüpfer’s personality shines through so clearly. Yes, he can be a fussy. Indeed, the nature of his job demands as much. Yet, he is undeniably charismatic (in a slightly nebbish way) and exhibits a surprisingly mischievous sense of humor. Classical music jesters Aleksey Igudesman and Richard Hyung-Ki Joo obviously value his musical and comedic judgment, as we see in one of the film’s funnier scenes.

Of course, there is plenty of music to be heard in Pianomania, but it is much more about what Knüpfer does than his clients’ performances. Still, there is something wonderful about hearing such a finely tuned instrument under the hands of an accomplished artist. Witnessing it all come together is enormously gratifying.

Few companies have inspired such ardent loyalty as Steinway, nor can many lay claim to at least two documentaries about their inner workings. Arguably, Ben Niles’ thematically related Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 is even more satisfying and in a strange way even uplifting, but it does not have Knüpfer. Capturing a sense of the uncompromising artistry embodied in Steinway pianos and the dedication of employees like him, Pianomania is definitely recommended to music lovers of all stripes, but particularly classical enthusiasts. Appropriately, it opens this Friday (11/4) at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center.