Stefan Knupfer in "Pianomania." (First Run Features )
The message of "Pianomania" is a simple one: to make the kind of beautiful music the great classical pianists create, you have to be obsessed with the search for the perfect sound. And you need the perfect accomplice as well. Which is where Stefan Knüpfer comes in.
Officially known as the chief technician and master tuner for the Austrian branch of the great piano firm Steinway & Sons (already the subject of another fine documentary, "Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037"), the agile, energetic Vienna-based Knüpfer is much more than that.
He is a co-conspirator, a sorcerer's apprentice, even a piano witch doctor and to watch him in action is addictive. When pianist Julius Drake smiles and asks for "nothing dramatic, just a little bit of magic," he knows that's precisely what he's going to get.
German documentarians Robert Cibis and Lilian Franck got the smart idea of following Knüpfer with a camera for 21/2 years, producing a fly-on-the-wall record of how he works his magic with several generations of pianists and their pianos, including veteran Alfred Brendel, midcareer Pierre-Laurent Aimard and red-hot newcomer Lang Lang.
None of these men got where they are by taking a "whatever" attitude toward their instruments. As Knüpfer explains, these virtuosos are insistent about always wanting the same tone from their pianos, but the problem is that all the factors that contribute to that sound are invariably different from piano to piano and concert to concert.
When you add that "pianists are mostly dissatisfied," you can see that Knüpfer has his work cut out for him. Even something simple like finding a sturdy piano bench for the energetic Lang Lang can involve the search of an entire building.
Because pianists have their own language about the kind of sound they are looking for, part of Knüpfer's job is to more or less read minds to understand precisely what these folks are looking for and then, in Brendel's words, "he helps in the friendliest manner."
As "Pianomania" gradually reveals, Knüpfer is able to do this so well because he is as much of a crazed perfectionist as the pianists themselves, maybe even more so. Someone who has bad dreams about torn strings and turns off the radio if he hears an ineptly tuned piano on the air, Knüpfer is fully capable of taking a piano apart and putting it back together again. If replacement hammerheads are 0.7 millimeter too narrow — about one-thirty-third of an inch off — he will notice in an instant.
The centerpiece of "Pianomania" is a major record Aimard is scheduled to make of Bach's "The Art of Fugue." Even by the standards of this fussy world, Aimard is ultra-demanding, so Knüpfer begins to work with him a year ahead of time. The pianist decides on one piano after much agonizing, only to learn that it was sold to someone in Australia. Can another piano that meets his specifications be made ready in time?
All those months spent following Knüpfer pay off in this crisis, because the filmmakers have complete access to the most sensitive artistic discussions. "Pianomania" details how stressful it can be to navigate a world where there is no such thing as an unreasonable demand, but when a pianist like Aimard hears what he's done and exclaims, "I've always dreamed of this sound," we understand that it's all been worthwhile.