In a piano recital, your eyes are usually fixed on the keyboard. Last night, all eyes were glued to the silver screen. The Institut français’ three day festival “It’s all about Piano!” kicked off cinematically at King’s Place. Mikhail Rudy’s compact double bill opened with the UK première of Metamorphosis, a film by the Quay Brothers based on Kafka, with live soundtrack courtesy of three Janáček piano scores. It then moved on to Rudy’s now famous visualisation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. With the hall darkened and Rudy playing not from a score, but (presumably) a computer or iPad to monitor the action, all attention was focused on a giant screen behind the Steinway. It provided a feast for the eyes, although sometimes proved a frustrating experience.

Kafka’s novella Metamorphosis tells the strange tale of a travelling salesman who awakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect-like creature. Stephen and Timothy Quay illustrate this with a mixture of live action and animation, shot in sepia and black and white film. A dusty clock hand ticked slowly, intercut with zoomed close-ups of a cockroach, tickling the viewer’s nerve endings. These were interspersed with puppetry scenes showing our hero’s bowler-hatted bosses, or footage of his sister putting out a saucer of scraps. It wasn’t for those of a squeamish nature – and there were a few members of the audience I spotted enjoying the music with eyes closed! The film’s narrative was deliberately blurred, thus giving a loose impression of Kafka’s plot. As story-telling, it didn’t always hit its mark, but for creepy (crawly) atmosphere, it was often effective.

At times, Janáček’s score – the Piano Sonata 1905, In the Mists and three movements from On an Overgrown Path –  seemed to provide a soundtrack or a commentary on the action. Janáček’s writing has an improvisatory feel to it and this worked well alongside the fragmentary nature of the images, like a silent film pianist reacting to what he sees on the screen.

Soon after each Janáček piece finished, Rudy would wait for the film to darken before the next scene began. Therefore, tight synchronisation between keyboard and screen wasn’t strictly necessary. This was not the case for Pictures at an Exhibition and doubts harboured in my mind about how the musical performance was compromised by having to coordinate with the moving images.

Although the sketches of his friend Viktor Hartmann inspired the work, Rudy turned to another, more famous artist as his inspiration for this film: Wassily Kandinsky. Abstract shapes glided across the screen; a decidedly unsinister “Gnomus” resembling an animated tangram puzzle. The two Jews – Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle – berated each other in geometric confrontation.

Some movements worked very well: “Tuileries” featured a mosaic of colour, reflected countless ways as a kaleidoscope; The “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” found three coloured dots chasing each other along curving tracks, almost like a graphic score with musical notes racing along a wavy stave. I assume Rudy had timed cues on his monitor, but the synchronisation here was amazing – a feat repeated in his encore.

Elsewhere, the playing felt rushed, not always helped by the bright piano sound. “Bydlo” was inexorable and clangourous, “Limoges” suffered from some very scrappy playing and “The Great Gate of Kiev” lacked grandeur at the tempo dictated by the film. Performing the same work repeatedly, I would expect a musician to adapt or refine their interpretation from one day to the next as the mood takes them. I couldn’t help feeling that the animations here acted as a straitjacket on the pianist, albeit with entertaining visuals. 

Opening few moments of Metamorphosis: