Wednesday, August 31, 2011



The technician and pianists studied up close in Pianomania, a 2009 Austrian documentary, are searching for the perfect sound.  They always get close, but I am not sure any of them well confess to ever actually hearing it.  Stefan Knupfer is Steinway & Sons master technician based out of Vienna.  He works at the Vienna concert house tuning, re-tuning, breaking apart and re-constructing grand pianos.  Working closely with the most famous and skilled pianists in the world including Lang Lang and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, they have intense discussions concerning tone, flavor, color, air, etc…
It turns out that grand pianos each have their own respective flavor, shape, and feeling.  Is the sound round or too round?  Is it full, thick, thin, light, or heavy?  In Pianomania, Stefan describes the piano as the perfect music machine.  Its full volume can reach 4000 in a single hall.  Conversely, another technician raises the question of just how much of a musical instrument it really is.  It takes three people just to move it around and if you draw on a particular string you will slice your hand open. 
Pierre-Laurent Aimard will record Bach concertos in one year at the concert hall.  A full year before these recordings, Stefan is already hard at work on it.  He travels to Hamburg to painstakingly select the back-up piano in case the first one is not to Pierre’s liking.  He goes over to the Hofburg to consult harpsichord and clavichord experts because he feels he must know their sounds better.  He almost self destructs when new hammerheads arrive (the parts which hit the piano strings) and they are 0.7mm too skinny, a fact he can tell just by looking at them. 
Throughout the year, Stefan works hand-in-hand with all of these accomplished solo pianists to find the sound they are so desperately trying to describe.  Tension frequently arises when they either cannot understand one another or when a piano sounds amazing to one person but like garbage to another.  Well into the film, it is not odd to hear phrases such as “the tone is fine, it is what is in the tone which sounds off.” 
Listening to the musicians play after they have finally decided the piano is ready is a real pleasure.  There are extended sequences devoted to them.  The camera work veers off every now and then though to try and match the sounds such as filming clouds reflecting on water or blurry neon lights.  Those shots do not work very well but they are few and far between.  Also, once the Bach recordings begin a year later, they can become quite tedious as you will see microphones adjusted and re-adjusted and Stefan running up and down the stairs repeatedly between the stage and the recording booth.  This conveys exactly what it is supposed to, that recording major works of classical music is extremely challenging, but it also not very amusing for the audience either.
I recommend Pianomania to those who appreciate classical music and would like to peek behind the curtain a bit.  Beware to those of you who do not seem interested by these descriptions, you will probably be bored.

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