When I was a kid, I was fascinated when the piano tuner would come to visit. Sitting at the bench, the tuner would bend the strings of my mom’s upright piano, looking for a sound quality I never fully understood. Many years later, the documentary Pianomania reawakens the same fascination, except with high stakes and fragile egos. There are moments of quiet brilliance where directors Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis communicate the difficulty of tuning for a top concert performer. For the most part, however, the skill and art of tuning a world-class piano remains frustratingly elusive.
Stephan Knüpfer is a kind-hearted Austrian who works with some of the world’s greatest pianists. Performers like Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Lang Lang are obscure to me (I’m no classical music connoisseur), but the enthusiasm and precision of their craft is easy to understand. The camera watches Knüpfer as he tinkers with Steinways, using imprecise language to articulate the exquisite sound he struggles to achieve.
His methods are sometimes unorthodox: Knüpfer develops panels that expand a piano’s sonic capacity, and later inserts felt into a piano’s nooks in order to keep his pianists happy. In a fascinating visit to the Steinway factory, we see the craftsmanship that goes into a piano’s construction and how sellers tirelessly work to find the best-calibrated instrument. Meanwhile, as Aimard prepares to record Bach compositions, Knüpfer races against time to achieve the perfect sound.
Unlike other character-driven documentaries, Knüpfer is no eccentric. He’s passionate and driven, this is true, but his idiosyncrasies stop there. Aside from his warm-hearted nature, we glean little about his past or personality. Instead, there are long stretches where he and others tickle the ivories and listen intently. The directors do not embellish the piano-tuning process or offer their own insight, so long stretches of the film are esoteric. Like an expert wine-taster, the vocabulary to describe a piano’s tuning almost sounds funny in a neophyte’s ear.
The directors invite us to listen alongside Knüpfer, but I suspect (like me) most people cannot discern between a well-tuned instrument and a perfectly-tuned one. There are a few occasions where I could hear what Knüpfer struggles to achieve, yet they are few and far between. The most engaging moments are we watch a pianist who integrates comedy in his routine, and Knüpfer imagines innovative ways to deconstruct a classical performance. When Lang Lang performs a Liszt composition, the directors capture the magic of a dramatic piano performance. But those flashes are genius do not compensate for the workmanlike dedication of getting a complex instrument to sound just right.
Before I started watching Pianomania, I was already predisposed to appreciate it. I took piano lessons for twelve years, and my relatives still rehearse Chopin Mazurkas when I’m at home. I’m sympathetic to their obsession and have the capacity to appreciate their skill, yet there are times where their endless discussion grows exhausting. Once the Bach recordings get underway, their debate reaches the upper stratosphere of understanding; for most people, I suspect their discussion is too much. With a shorter running time, Pianomania would be a memorable segment on 60 minutes. But as a feature-length documentary, it is only well-suited for pianists and listeners with perfect pitch. This is the sort of movie my mom would adore, then lecture me for not appreciating it enough.