sat 23/03/2019

Set The Piano Stool on Fire: on filming Alfred Brendel | reviews, news & interviews

Set The Piano Stool on Fire: on filming Alfred Brendel

Set The Piano Stool on Fire: on filming Alfred Brendel

Director Mark Kidel on his intimate film about genius and protégé

The genius and the prodigy: Kit Armstrong and Alfred BrendelImages © John Batten

When Alfred Brendel first mentioned Kit Armstrong to me, in early 2008, I knew there was a film there. He was brimming with excitement: Kit had come to him with an interpretation of a Chopin Nocturne that displayed a command and maturity that was baffling considering Kit was 13 at the time of the recording. Alfred led me into his inner sanctum, a practice room filled to bursting with two Steinways, a large carved idol from New Guinea, Liszt’s death mask and a rich and varied collection of paintings and images, some of them revealing the pianist’s wicked Dadaist sense of humour. He slipped the CD into the player, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.

There is something deep that passes between them and which goes beyond the mere imparting of wisdom, technique and musical interpretation

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Having attended the June 4 screening, I was left with very mixed feelings. The sound -as Mr Brendel himself noted- is outstanding and the photography is superb. The narrative structure works very well too. The problem for me is that the film tries to tread ever-so-lightly around the tender wunderkind that I felt as if in a septic tank. No friction, no doubt (or self-doubt), no challenge to Armstrong's views about his life or about the world and his place in it, no time spent on why he was raised the way he was (e.g. we never hear anything about his father, or about how he did in school, or what people other than the Brendels, his mother and his agent think about him).

That tallies, Emmanuel, with my limited impressions (from Verbier) of Kit Armstrong. The younger you're hailed as a fabulous performer - which he undoubtedly was, in the handful of things I heard - the more all around you are bound to fawn. It doesn't lead to a natural development as a Mensch, does it? The most human artists I've met all learnt their craft away from the spotlight of adulation.

Well, perhaps, but I tried to restrict my point to the merits of the film rather than the constitution of its wunderkind subject. It seems to me that it's alright to stand in awe of one's chosen focus, as long as one still enjoys enough freedom and curiosity to interrogate it. It was quite obvious that Mr Kidel did not enjoy this degree of freedom in making his film... I can't judge how Mr Armstrong could or should develop as a human being. The artist doesn't owe the audience anything, nor can we assume that moving music-making must always be associated with skills and qualities that we appreciate at the interpersonal level. Having said that, it is very interesting that, by his own account, Brendel developed in a diametrically opposite way to Armstrong...

A very late reply: Kit Armstrong is a very private person. Prodigies rarely have normal lives and it is never easy for them. He is also one of those outstandingly intelligent people (very good at maths too) who find the ordinary business of communicating difficult. But he is changing. When I first met him, quite a while before we started filming, he was even more reticent. He is now much more forthcoming. As for his father, he is never mentioned and I don't see the point of embarrassing him or his mother with questions about someone who doesn't figure in their lives. The film was first and foremost about the relationship between Kit and Alfred.

When might we expect to see this film released in the USA? I know of many, myself included, who would welcome it eagerly.

There are, sadly, no plans to release this in the USA. I fear it wouldn't find the audience a distributor would require. Or organize a screening yourself if you are connected to a local art house cinema or music festival. You can buy it on DVD in the UK - try Amazon

Thank you for your reply. It is indeed unfortunate that the economics of film distribution prevent the release of productions such as yours here in the USA. Our loss, I'm afraid. However, I have ordered the DVD from Amazon UK and eagerly await its arrival.

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