David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninov

COMPOSERS: Rachmaninov
LABELS: RCA Victor Red Seal
WORKS: Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Four Preludes, Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor
PERFORMER: David Helfgott
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 40378 2

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Whether it gets an Oscar this month or not, Scott Hicks’s Shine is the most remarkable film to have emerged in Australasia since The Piano. By coincidence, Shine too is about pianism in straitened circumstances, though its provenance and purpose have a far more desperate urgency.

For this film is no fantasy. It tells the true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott: from talented beginnings, to glittering success at London’s Royal College of Music, to a psychotic crack-up and incarceration in assorted mental homes, and on to his miraculous salvation at the hands of a gutsy astrologer who takes him in hand and marries him. And it shows him making it back to the concert platform. He may not be entirely ‘cured’ – he still gabbles nonsense, and still cavorts naked when the mood takes him – but is the only thing he ever wanted to be.

It’s a wonderful fairy-tale, and also a horrendous story of fathers and sons. For Helfgott’s father was a Polish Jew made paranoid by wartime experiences: he escaped the Holocaust, but most of his family did not. Poor as a church mouse, he jealously rejects any help with his son’s training, and refuses to let him accept a scholarship in America. When David accepts a place to study in London, Helfgott père assaults him with terrible violence and banishes him forever.

Nothing is spelled out, but the film implies a connection between this disastrous relationship and the boy’s subsequent illness. Like any ‘true’ story whose real-life protagonists are still alive, Shine has been attacked as a travesty: David’s sister Margaret, a pianist living in Israel, claims that her late father was never violent.

Director Scott Hicks, who spent ten years researching the project, insists that everything in his story ‘has a basis in reality’. Seeking the truth from David himself is no easy matter, because the chemical imbalance in his brain, now controlled by drugs, causes him to speak so fast and so wildly that the matter is drowned out in the verbal ‘white noise’. Certain phrases recur like leitmotifs, whatever he is asked about: ‘it’s awesome’, ‘very tricky’, ‘very costly’. But one question I asked about his early piano studies unlocked something very near the bone. ‘My father put me on the most difficult pieces straight away,’ he said. ‘Made me play the Grieg Concerto – made me play it all.

Loving father – mistaken father – can be a disaster – saying play it all. Father put some stress on me – never mind – better now!’ It certainly is, thanks to his wife Gillian, who has cut out his chain-smoking, reduced his gargantuan caffeine consumption, and trained him not to shout and sing while he plays. Well, up to a point: I caught one of his recitals in Melbourne, where he was still merrily providing his own vocal accompaniment.

But in strictly musical terms it was a lovely evening: his interpretations are unorthodox and his concentration a trifle erratic, but he is still a virtuoso with a truly poetic response to the Ravel, Rachmaninov and Liszt which is his staple fare. For the inside story of this extraordinary restoration job, read Gillian Helfgott’s Love You to Bits and Pieces (Viking), in which she graphically describes the ‘fog’ which descended on his mind when a teenager, and which only started to lift when he was forty.

And the soundtrack to Shine? Well, after the vivid quirkiness of the film, it’s a let-down. From its watery opening to the blast of Vivaldi at the end, it might be the soundtrack to any contemporary weepie. George Fenton might have put it together. Harps, swooning strings, ruminant keyboard melodies: we’ve been here dozens of times. The 34 tracks average one and a half minutes in length, with titles like ‘Tell Me a Story, Katherine’ or ‘As If There Was No Tomorrow’.

There are indeed snatches of Helfgott himself, but since these are invisibly cobbled together with sequences played by music producer David Hirschfelder, one can take no forensic pleasure. Of course Hirschfelder and his colleagues were under considerable difficulties – Helfgott is still a wild card, and recording is a precisely timed art – but they’ve completely ducked the challenge.

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However, there is a recording which gives a true flavour of Helfgott’s performances. In David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninov (RCA Victor) he performs his favourite music, somewhat erratically, often mutedly, but breathing a true, sad poetry.. David Helfgott will give a recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, on 5 May