Set the Piano Stool on Fire

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Various
LABELS: Artificial Eye
WORKS: A film by Mark Kidel
PERFORMER: With pianists Alfred Brendel and Kit Armstrong
CATALOGUE NO: ART536DVD (NTSC system; dolby digital 2.0; 16:9 picture format)

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It’s unusual to find an artist as self-protective as Alfred Brendel putting himself before a documentary maker’s camera (lectures aside). To find the camera squeezed into his study for a piano lesson, with Brendel imparting wisdom and experience, and young Kit Armstrong, brilliantly gifted, absorbing with wide eyes, is more astonishing still. At times the participants nervously eye Mark Kidel’s fly on the wall while trying to pretend the fly isn’t there. But it is; and it catches plenty of magic, along with precious revelations both about the musicians and the music heard.

At first the film’s drift suggests that Armstrong is its ‘star’. Photographed at work in 2008-9, at ages between 15 and 17, he certainly has star qualities. British-Taiwanese, of breathtaking forensic intelligence, he’s as skilled in mathematics as he is at the piano. He also composes, creates wonders in origami, smiles impishly, and has a thing about chickens. Definitely an attractive character; and one whose artistry grows in depth under tutelage at Brendel’s Hampstead Home or the Dorset village of Plush.

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But it’s Brendel, on the way to 80, who gives the film its heart. 2008 was the year he abandoned public performances, and it’s hard not to feel him passing along the torch as his coaxes his protégé with acute musical analyses, comic dancing gestures, and his own limpid treatment of Liszt’s Au lac de Wallenstadt, performed in concert at Plush. Kidel’s digital images and Andrew Findlay’s editing are pleasurably unfussy. Geoff Brown