The Art of Piano Review

Part of a series released by Warner Music Vision (other titles include The Art of Violin, The Art of Singing and The Art of Conducting), The Art of Piano is a 108-minute documentary designed primarily as an introduction to the work of some of the twentieth century's greatest pianists - and on that score it does a pretty good job.

The structure couldn't be simpler - after an impressive introduction that seamlessly edits performances of Beethoven's Appassionata sonata by such diverse artists as Solomon, Claudio Arrau, Myra Hess, Sviatoslav Richter and Artur Rubinstein (and in so doing neatly illustrates the documentary's main theme: that of individuality of interpretation), we're given a whistle-stop tour of eighteen pianists, spanning roughly the 1920s to the 1970s, the period from which virtually all the footage is derived.

Impressively, considering that synchronised sound film wasn't introduced until the late 1920s, more than half the pianists featured were born in the 19th century (way back in 1839 in the case of Francis Planté, who knew Rossini, Gounod, Liszt and Berlioz), and much of the footage is tantalisingly rare - in some cases, such as Planté, Josef Hofmann or Ignaz Jan Paderewzki, there's just one filmed performance available, so this DVD is an invaluable historical record quite apart from its virtues as a documentary.

As the latter, though, it does a solid rather than spectacular job. It was a very good idea to hire major present-day pianists as interviewees (Piotr Anderszewski, Daniel Barenboim, Evgeny Kissin, Stephen Kovacevich, György Sandor, Tamás Vásary), since they self-evidently know what they're talking about, and most are commendably intelligent and articulate, even though English obviously isn't the first language of most of them.

There is, however, a certain bittiness in the treatment overall, which isn't too surprising when you consider that potted biographies of eighteen pianists have been crammed into a 108-minute running time - an average of six minutes each to cover the life and work and supply a musical clip of sufficient substance to get the point across.

Under the circumstances, it does reasonably well in this department - but by its nature a disc such as this is bound to be more useful as an introduction to the subject than a definitive account, not least because the choice of pianists featured was clearly dictated by the availability of footage, and some (Glenn Gould, for instance, who practically lived in the recording and TV studio in the 1970s) get rather more airtime than others who were more camera-shy.

It's also a little disappointing that the focus is entirely on classical pianists, since jazz virtuosi like Art Tatum could be as technically extraordinary as anyone featured here. The musical range is also fairly narrow even within the bounds of the classical piano literature: lots of Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Beethoven and Liszt, but nothing especially off the beaten track (Scarlatti is about as adventurous as this repertoire gets, and there's nothing post-Rachmaninoff and precious little else from the twentieth century).

Still, as the focus is on the pianists rather than the music, this last point is a relatively minor complaint, and those buying the DVD to study piano technique will be delighted to hear that most of the footage consists of detailed close-ups of the pianists' hands in action - which is exactly what one would hope for.

Obviously, the nature of a documentary like this means that the footage is going to be immensely variable in terms of quality, but what's very encouraging here is that the threshold is commendably high. In fact, the older the footage, the better-preserved it seems to be: one of the worst clips, ironically enough, is a 1992 recording of Sviatoslav Richter (though this is largely down to Richter's fondness for performing in near-total darkness than any failings on the part of the camera operator!).

Not surprisingly, there are a few visual blemishes, mostly in the form of spots and scratches, together with tape problems with some of the TV-sourced material (much of it made for American TV, and so presumably broadcast NTSC converted to PAL with all that that implies), but all in all the quality of the footage is remarkably good: it's unlikely that those interested in the subject are going to find much to complain about. Particularly impressive is a slowed-down piece of silent (!) footage of Vladimir Horowitz dating from 1926, to show his technique in detail: the quality isn't especially outstanding, but you can certainly see all you need to.

The transfer is perfectly adequate for this material: a trifle soft overall, but never obtrusively so, and artefacting is kept to a minimum. Since virtually all the film clips were shot in 4:3, this is the aspect ratio of the DVD, so the lack of anamorphic enhancement isn't a problem.

The soundtrack is similarly - and again, absolutely understandably - variable, ranging from admirable clarity to... well, let's just say that some of the earlier recordings betray their age more than somewhat (the earliest ones date from the late 1920s), and often fail to do anything like justice to the artistry on display.

Then again, beggars can't be choosers with this material - and it's probably very safe to say that this is as good as you're likely to get. Also, to be fair, there are as many pleasant surprises as there are confirmations of one's fears. The technical quality of the modern interviews is perfectly acceptable without being in any way outstanding, though some of the original piano recordings are startlingly good considering their age.

Soundtracks and subtitles are available in English, French and German - and English speakers should switch English subtitles on, as they're essential for translating foreign interviewees and film clips (English speakers are not translated).

There are no extras on the disc as such (which is a great pity given the scope offered for longer excerpts from the clips featured in the documentary), though there's an excellent 24-page booklet that among other things offers a list of all 35 chapters (pianists, interviewees, works performed and dates of recordings are all given), brief but useful biographies of all the pianists, and an essay by Hélène Pierrakos on the documentary. All this is presented in English, French and German, but the print is pretty small, so a fair amount of ground gets covered. To be honest, with material like this I prefer the background information in printed form, as it's easier to consult during the actual performance.

All in all, this DVD certainly does the job it sets out to achieve - unlike, say, the far more in-depth Richter the Enigma or Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (each of which focused on just one artist) this can't hope to give more than a relatively cursory account of each pianist's life and career, but it strikes the right balance: archive materials permitting, the music comes first, as it certainly should.

The lack of extras is somewhat disconcerting given the relatively high RRP in the UK - but I got round that by importing it from Australia for less than half the price: region 2-only DVD owners can rest assured that this poses no problems at all, as the disc is coded for regions 2 to 6 inclusive.

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