Written by Greg Barbrick
When listening to master pianists such as Vladimer Horowitz or Keith Jarrett, I wonder if many people consider the actual instrument itself. I know I take it for granted that the piano will sound beautiful, and my attention is generally directed on the performance itself. The new documentary Pianomania shows us a different side of the process. In it, we are offered an interesting look at the construction and meticulous tuning a Steinway Grand Concert Piano undergoes to produce the “perfect” sound. Of course, the perfect sound is in the ear of the beholder, and this is where things get tricky. The film follows Steinway technician Stefan Knupfer as he endeavors to create the pitch and tone each pianist requests. It is fascinating watch him work, and the various methods he employs.
I imagine most people know the basics of how a piano operates. A key is pressed. a hammer inside strikes a string, and the desired note is produced. What makes Pianomania so intriguing is how even the slightest tweak by Stefan can dramatically alter the sound of the notes. In the film, he is shown working with a number of brilliant pianists, but the most difficult for him is Pierre -Laurent Aimard. Mr. Aimard is searching for a piano sound which is difficult to describe for his upcoming Bach recordings, and it is up to Stefan to match the performer to not only the piano, but also to the acoustics of the venue.
There is a rigid timeline in place for all of this to happen, as the recording schedule is basically set in stone at the Concert House in Vienna. The situation is complicated even more by the fact that the Concert Grand owned by the venue has been sold, and a new one is being constructed for them at the Steinway factory in Hamburg. Rather than showing us much of the basic work of actually building a piano, the film focuses more on Stefan’s efforts to properly install and tune it.
This may sound a little dry, but it is not at all. In fact, knowing that this unmovable deadline is looming, and watching the various tribulations Stefan goes through is actually quite compelling. For example, the hammers the factory sends along for Stefan to install and tune are the wrong size. One look at the detailed work that goes into each hammer shows us that this is a catastrophe of major proportions. Has the factory simply sent the wrong box of hammers, or must a whole new set be manufactured?
Later, as Pierre-Laurent tries out the instrument, Stefan is faced with another big challenge. There is a very particular sound that the pianist is looking for, which is not easily described. Phrases like “more air,” or “bigger intimacy” are used, and it is up to Stefan to translate them into sound. It is a unique process, and very incremental. Not only is he working to get the “perfect” tone for Mr. Aimard, but he has to run upstairs to the recording booth to see how the acoustics of the hall are affecting the overall sound quality.
Along the way, Stefan works with pianist Lang Lang on something of a comedy piece for one of his performances. The tuning of the piano is not so much the issue as is the placement of a violin for the bit. Finally Stefan comes up with the novel idea of turning the violin into the front, right-hand leg of the piano itself. Lang does not believe the violin will hold up the Grand, until Stefan puts all of his weight on the keyboard. He even removes the violin at one point, and shows that even this does not have any affect on the standing of the piano.
The life of a Steinway technician is a strange one. Every performer and every hall they play in bring a different set of circumstances into play, and it is up to the tech to make everything sound “right.” The intricacies are unbelievable, and after seeing Pianomania, I will never watch or listen to a great pianist quite the same way again. Now I understand that there is much more to the process than just genius talent. There is a great deal of genius behind the scenes as well.
The lone DVD extra is a text interview question and answer segment with directors Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis. The 92-minute film is in mainly in German, with English subtitles.