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by Mel Valentin

"Piano tuning has never been this compelling."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 53RD SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed by Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck (who also co-produced, with Cibis acting as co-cinematographer as well), the aptly titled "Pianomania" centers on Stephan Knüpfer, a much-sought-after piano tuner (and Steinway & Sons employee) and his clients, Lang Lang, Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Alfred Brendel, Rudolph Buchbinder, Till Fellner, Richard Hyung-Ki Joo, and Aleksey Igudesman , and the seemingly endless search for the perfect grand piano sound. A character study of Knüpfer and his classically trained clients, "Pianomania" is never less than engaging, never less than compelling over its 93-minute running time.

While structured around Knüpfer as he fine-tunes several grand pianos, Pianomania returns, almost as obsessively as the pianists we encounter repeatedly on screen, to Knüpfer’s months-long preparation of a grand piano (actually two) for Pierre-Laurent Aimard, a world-renown pianist, set to record one of Bach’s central works, The Art of the Fugue, in approximately a year. Cibis and Franck first follow Knüpfer as he tunes a piano for Lang Lang, a well-respected pianist. As demanding and exacting as Lang Lang is, however, he, along with the other pianists we briefly meet, is relatively reasonable in comparison to Aimard.

As we soon learn, each pianist has his own, often unique conception of what a piano should sound like for their upcoming performances. Attuned (pun intended) to the complexities and idiosyncrasies of pianists, one-time prodigies turned regular performers and recording artists, Knüpfer is both piano tuner and therapist, recognizing their needs, assuaging their concerns, while subtly guiding them to accept what’s ultimately an imperfect instrument (because it can’t match the Platonic ideal inside their heads) for their upcoming performances or recordings.

Knüpfer’s year-long journey also takes him back to the Hamburg, Germany headquarters of Steinway & Sons, where, with his help, a new grand piano is chosen for a Viennese concert hall. The new piano, meant as a replacement for an older model recently sold to Australia, also plays a significant part in the Bach recordings. If Pianomania is any indication, preparing not one, but two pianos for Aimard proves to be the greatest challenge of Knüpfer’s career. For the recordings, Aimard wants to create four distinct sounds, each set to a particular, each, unsurprisingly, involving physical and mental effort, including creative thinking, by Knüpfer to achieve.

As challenging and ultimately rewarding working with Aimard proves to be for Knüpfer, he also contributes ideas to a sketch act. The performers, Richard Hyung-Ki Joo, a pianist, and Aleksey Igudesman, a violinist, use their classical training as the basis for a long-running comedy act. Knüpfer helps to generate ideas and, using his technical expertise, make them happen. It’s a welcome relief from the stress and rigors of his professional life as a piano tuner.

If, as "Pianomania" suggests, Knüpfer lives a life centered almost exclusively on his craft (a wife is mentioned, but never seen or identified), it’s certainly a full one and with his help, help that’s rarely, if ever, acknowledged, lovers of classical music can enjoy their favorite composers and performers in pitch-perfect form.

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originally posted: 04/25/10 08:00:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Berlin International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Berlin International Film Festival series, click here.

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  04-Nov-2011 (NR)
  DVD: 14-Feb-2012


  DVD: 14-Feb-2012

Directed by
  Robert Cibis
  Lilian Franck

Written by

  Stephan Knüpfer
  Pierre-Laurent Aimard
  Lang Lang
  Till Fellner
  Christoph Koller
  Alfred Brendel

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