Though portrayed by actor Geoffrey Rush in the film “Shine,” David Helfgott is no fictional character. He’s a real-life pianist whose career collapsed just as it was beginning.
Now, 25 years later, Helfgott is resurfacing.
And, “Shine” tells his story movingly.
In his early 20s Helfgott won a student solo competition in London playing Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3, his father’s favorite piece. Then, Helfgott came apart mentally and spent 15 years in institutions, the subject of various types of therapy. Doctors, for a while, forbade him to play the piano at all. Even his speech became a rapid-fire, repetitous mumbling.
Those who have seen “Shine” could see Helfgott’s trouble coming. His father, Peter, was a Polish emigre to Australia who had lost family in the Holocaust. Peter (played by Armin Mueller-Stahl) had no use for failure. “Always win,” he whispers to David (Noah Taylor), the child who has just lost a competition. “Only the strong survive; the weak are crushed like insects.”
Peter Helfgott loved his son, yet struck at him cruelly, forbidding him to accept Isaac Stern’s invitation to study in the U.S., and physically beating him in a futile attempt to prevent his son’s acceptance of a scholarship to the Royal School of Music in London.
The warping mixture of obsessive parental love and cruelty is no stranger to the careers of youthful performers. Pianist Ruth Slenczyska and violinist Michael Rabin suffered from that combination of adoration and abuse.
The competitions Helfgott entered again and again, winning most of the time, just as his father ordered, played their part in the pianist’s troubles. “They’re a blood sport,” one of Helfgott’s rivals says. The list of competition winners who see potentially brilliant careers fizzle is a long one.
Teachers, even great teachers, can create their hurtful pressures. Helfgott studied in London with Cyril Smith (called Cyril Park in the film and played by John Gielgud). Smith had an outstanding career until a stroke crippled his left arm. (“Poor pussycat!” Helfgott says.)
Away from the piano, Helfgott was (and is, apparently) awkward and clumsy, but Smith tells a skeptical colleague, “I hear moments of genius.” In Gielgud’s performance, the teacher relives his own excitement of having played Rachmaninoff’s Third to the composer’s approval. A dangerous thing, living vicariously.
Drugs or alcohol have brought down many promising stars. Glenn Gould was addicted to prescription drugs just as Josef Hoffmann had been to strong drink. Neither chemical problem seems to have tempted Helfgott. He was simply unable to face the performance pressures imposed on him by others and by himself.
A solo performer/genius has to combine the skill of the high-wire acrobat and the persuasive power of the charismatic preacher. He or she must thrill us and convince us. Helfgott could do both, “Shine” tells us. Then came the fall and later the redemption with the help of Gillian, a professional astrologer who became his wife, biographer and the supervisor of his career.
Helfgott will turn 50 next month. The enormous success of “Shine” has led to a RCA release on CD with Helfgott’s performances of Rachmaninoff’s Third (no surprise) along with the composer’s Sonata No. 2 and a handful of preludes. A second CD has been recorded, but its release will probably coincide with Helfgott’s 26-city U.S. tour in March, including Seattle April 2.
In many places his performances were sold out immediately. Additional concerts have been added in New York and Los Angeles. Will a Helfgott recital be worth hearing?
“Shine” and subsequent Helfgott performances have created a flood of commentary. The New York Times’s critic has not seen the movie and doesn’t intend to, but dismisses Rachmaninoff’s Third (and the Second along with it) as “cozy piece of schlock.” But a Danish writer calls Helfgott “a unicorn… whose intellect operates on a completely separate wavelength which picks up cosmic noises and vibrations.”
The critic for the Baltimore Sun, who confesses to owning 36 (!) recordings of the Rachmaninoff Third, warns record and ticket buyers that they are paying to hear a musician whose playing “betokens his suffering from a mental and emotional breakdown.”
I have been to “Shine” and been moved by it. I have listened to Helfgott’s CD and found “moments of genius” but also some precarious-sounding patches and long, long stretches of perfectly dull, but acceptable playing.
My advice: See “Shine.” Buy a Horowitz, Ashkenazy or Cliburn recording of the Rachmaninoff Third. And do not trouble yourself that most of Helfgott’s U.S. performances are already sold out and you don’t have a ticket.
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