"Pianomania" is the thoroughly apt title for a thoroughly enjoyable documentary about Stefan Knüpfer, the chief technician and master tuner for Steinway & Sons, maker of arguably the world's finest pianos. Knüpfer, who is responsible for the tone of the grand pianos in the Vienna Concert House, ministers to the needs of some of the most famous and demanding piano virtuosos, including Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard.
The pianists' obsession with the minutest hemi-demisemiquavers of sound would be enough to propel most people into a padded room, but Knüpfer is equally obsessive about satisfying these artists. (He's the piano equivalent of a horse whisperer.) One of his proudest moments, he tells us, is when he got everything right and the megapicky Aimard said, "I've always dreamed of this sound."
Knüpfer began his apprenticeship with Steinway at 15, after deciding he didn't have the talent to be a great pianist himself. He seems very happy with this decision, not least because of the grueling lifestyle of the concert artist. "Many of the great pianists," he says in a grand understatement, "are pretty neurotic." (Although the film doesn't mention it, some of them, like Sviatoslav Richter, would actually transport their own grand pianos to concerts worldwide.)
Aimard is a prime example of the neurotic artist. The filmmakers, Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis, structure the film as a yearlong run-up to his recording of Bach's "The Art of the Fugue," and at every step along the way Aimard is hyperattuned to the slightest tonal discrepancies. In the film's funniest moment, Knüpfer tells us how Aimard invariably compliments him on a tonal adjustment only to immediately backtrack by adding, "Question!"
Sure enough, we are then shown a scene in which Knüpfer manipulates the hammerheads and tightens the strings and then, voilà, Aimard, after the obligatory compliment, follows up with "Question!"
Knüpfer is able to laugh at this – unlike most obsessives, he has a ripe sense of humor – because, on some level, he is the pianists' artistic equal. He is the supreme artist of extracting the exact right sound from a great piano, and it's clear his collaboration is crucial when you consider how extraordinarily beautiful this music can be. (We hear choice snippets of Aimard's Bach as well as a rousing rendition of Elliott Carter's "Catenaires"; also Brendel playing Schubert and Beethoven, and Lang performing a rather bangy rendition of Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody.")
There are times, I must admit, when I wondered whether all this manic attention to the soundscape was overblown. Many of the great pianists and piano technicians are born with perfect or near-perfect pitch, which their audiences do not share. These artists can be driven up the wall by the slightest off-key registry. But perfection of sound has never been the hallmark of great piano artistry. Glenn Gould was notorious for loudly humming his way through his concerts (many of his recordings capture his hums). Artur Rubinstein was far from note-perfect at the keyboard. It doesn't really matter. Their musicmaking is transcendent anyway. In fact, the discrepancies only serve to point out their humanness – which of course makes their superhuman achievements seem even more extraordinary.
There is a wonderful quote in the press notes for "Pianomania" from a handbook for housewives: "One saves 50% of energy when one is satisfied with 90% of perfection." The film-makers use this sentence as a way of putting the subject of "Pianomania" into perspective. As Cibis says: "If we are prepared to make a 10% compromise in our aspiration to perfection, we can save an enormous amount of energy."
But what about the people who can't make that 10 percent compromise? That's what "Pianomania" is all about. Specialization at such a high level is bound to warp one's world, but when the quest is for the "ultimate sound," who can deny its magic? Grade: A- (Unrated.)