The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Austrian film “Pianomania” strikes a chord and resonates.

April 7, 2011
10 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

There was something for everyone during last week’s 13th annual Wisconsin Film Festival, which screened some 209 movies in five days and nights.

And that included a couple of movies for fans of classical music.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t get into “Mozart’s Sister” because one showing was sold out and the other didn’t fit into my schedule. But I intend to see it in DVD if I hear enough good things about it. (So please — I’d like to hear from readers who did see it about whether they recommend it or not.)

The one music film I did see was “Pianomania,” which had two different showings at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s lecture hall in the Overture Center.

The time I went, it drew a pretty good size audience for a specialty film.

But that may not be so surprising after all.

For one there is a lot of piano students, piano players and piano fans – even piano nuts, among which I count myself — out there.

Also, this was a film about a glorious obsession – which, as festival director Meg Hamel (below) explained, was why she chose to screen it. She herself is fond of  documentaries about people who have unique obsessions and go about them in a single-minded way.

This time the obsession was pianos. But it could just as well be about violins. Or gardens and flowers. Trees or sports. Food or words. Whatever it is that attracts total devotion from human beings.

This particular this 93-minute Austrian film, released in 2009, centers on Stefan Knuepfer (below right), a major piano tuner/technician for European Steinway, based in Hamburg. The film takes place in Vienna, which is the music capital, historically if not today, of the Continent. (Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler Bruckner and Schonberg, Berg and Webern among others called it home.)

So we see famous pianists Alfred Brendel, Lang Lang, Till Fellner and Rudolf Buchbinder. And we see an awful lot — too much, I would say —  of the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (below), who has a Bach recording (“Art of the Fugue”) facing him a year away and needs Knupefer’s help. Aimard strikes me as also obsessive, but in a fussy, humorless and uncompromising way that I frankly don’t think his recordings merit. He seems, in short, a pill, if a greta one and I don’t care how many awards he has won or how loyal following he has. His playing so often seems to me quirky, choppy and tinny in tone. Much of that, I think, stems from a percussiveness that I see as originating in his devotion to contemporary music.

But that is another story for another day and another blog post.

Anyway, the real protagonist of the film is Stefan, the totally delightful go-to piano tuner and technician, who will go to any length to satisfy the artistic tastes, and even whims, of the people he is charged with satisfying.

Is the piano too loud? Too soft? Too hard to the touch? Too loose to play? Uneven? Go talk to Stefan.

With unending good humor and incredible inventiveness as well as total concentration bordering on fixation, he will try and try and try again to find a way to fix the problem.

The film — which goes into DVD release on May 15 this year  — is filled with fascinating minutiae, famous figures and great good laughs as well as some fine music and a lot of wonderful shots inside the piano showing you how the instrument works.

I highly recommend you see this enthralling film  if you have the chance , either in a theater, on DVD or on TV.

It is about piano about music, about personalities and psychology, about perfectionism of all kinds, and about so much more.

I am sure you will enjoy it as well as The Ear did.

If you saw “Pianomania,” what did you think?

Do you recommend it?

The Ear wants to hear.

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Posted in Classical music

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