Losing that shine
David Helfgott's piano recitals have generated bitter controversy. Denis Dutton explains why
With the musical reputation of David Helfgott now in tatters, the question per- sists how an incompetent, mentally dis- turbed pianist has found himself touring to sold-out halls, promoted in the expensive souvenir programme as 'one of the world's leading pianists'. Why don't his champions snap out of the delusion that his recitals are supreme musical events? Is it despite or because of the most scathing reviews dumped on any pianist in recent memory that Helfgott continues to get rapturous, standing ovations?
The Helfgott entourage, of course, has been asking for it. The repeated descrip- tions of Helfgott as a 'genius', as 'the Nineties version of Horowitz and Rubin- stein', in the words of an official of his recording company, have rubbed knowl- edgeable piano buffs the wrong way. Com- parisons of his grunts and mutterings during performances with the behaviour of the great Glenn Gould are downright offensive, and not just in terms of technical and intellectual capacities: Gould never sang during live concerts.
Recent events in North America dupli- cate the pattern established by Helfgott's visit several weeks ago here in New Zealand, where he began his world tour. Perhaps his handlers were hoping for a gentle start, working up toward the concert halls and critics of North America and Britain. But even though people in this green and pleasant land are polite to a fault, Helfgott's five recitals generated more acrimony and hurt feelings than any musical episode in years.
New Zealand critics and seasoned listen- ers dismissed his performances as inaccu- rate, eccentric, self-indulgent and amateurish. There were repeated refer- ences to circus and freak shows, and asser- tions that without the film Shine no one would take Helfgott seriously as a concert musician. Given Helfgott's overt displays of mental peculiarity, his playing put one observer in mind of Dr Johnson's remark about the dog that walked on its hind legs: `It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.' Another had the uneasy feeling that he wasn't so much lis- tening to a piano recital as eavesdropping on someone's therapy session.
To judge by the outrage and indignation these criticisms provoked, you'd have thought someone had denounced Sir Edmund Hillary as a poofter or mocked the Special Olympics. Among the dozens of concert-goers complaining about blunt newspaper reviews, one woman wrote: `This wasn't just a piano recital, it was a chance to touch the world of an extraordi- nary human being, and everyone with a David Helfgott heart will have been enriched by the expe- rience.' Another stated that never had she been 'so moved and enjoyed a recital so much'. One person decried the inaccuracy and prejudice a critic displayed: 'The only thing the reviewer got right,' he said, 'was to notice that Helfgott was not a very good pianist.'
Ah, yes. That any purely musical evalua- tion of Helfgott 'missed the point' was an accusation repeatedly heard. An academic defender of a Helfgott performance wrote that the concert 'was part of a wonderful and deeply moving story of music and the human spirit. The story was brilliantly por- trayed in a film which most of the audience had seen, but the story was also true, and now the audience were part of it.'
It was obvious that Helfgott's audiences were made up largely of Shine fans who had never before attended a classical piano recital. They applauded between move- ments of Beethoven's Waldstein, and even during the Chopin F minor Ballade, in which they were abetted by Helfgott him- self. New Zealand audiences consistently mistook the soft cascade of chords which precedes the stormy finale of the Ballade for its end. As cheers and clapping began, Helfgott would spring to his feet and bow to what then became general applause. Bows completed, he shot back to the piano and played the last bars of the Ballade, then stood for another, even more excited round. The same routine has been followed elsewhere on his tour.
Helfgott plays with suggestions of what once might have been a fluent natural tech- nique. His tone is pleasant, but absent is any sense whatsoever of an organising musical intelligence. In the slow Chopin Etude Opus 10 No. 3, for example, he would lavish close, obsessive attention in some phrase or detail, only to seem vacant- ly distracted in the next bar. If, as Goethe claimed, architecture is frozen music, David Helfgott is the musician who finally proves the converse: that music can also be melted architecture — a structureless rub- ble of notes.
The Ballade also rambled senselessly, accompanied, as with everything else, by Helfgott's continuous chatter and atonal singing. One especially intrusive squeal was followed by a wink in the style of Victor Borge. The audience's laughter and approval weren't so much a knowing response to a comedian, as the indulgence of a child showing off one time too many.
The Waldstein was a collection of frag- ments, alternating slow swoons over the keyboard with frenetic passage work. The shallow fingering produced a smooth, blurred legato which masked the fact that whole handfuls of notes failed to sound. The dropped notes, however, were less of a defect than the complete lack of dramatic tension. It was Beethoven on Prozac, but to the crowd it merited a standing ovation and demands for encores.
There is no doubt that many Shine fans are enormously taken by the movie's melo- dramatic story. Here is a tale of abuse and breakdown, therapy and slow recovery, and final redemption by the love of a good woman. The cult of burning genius is rep- resented most mawkishly in the scenes where John Gielgud exhorts his young stu- dent to conquer the Rachmaninov Third before it conquers him. It's the sheerest Hollywood drivel: musical art as a touch of genius passed on from a great teacher to his pupil.
As for opinions that Helfgott's dubbed-in piano-playing in the movie is 'brilliant', I averted my eyes from the screen to assess its actually pianistic, as opposed to cine- matic, qualities. Sure enough, it was the choppy, technically deficient, unstructured playing I'd heard the week before in the concert hall, except that there were fewer actual mistakes. The only piano passage in the film that struck me as adequate (an excerpt from Beethoven's Appassionata which Helfgott performs once he's on the comeback trail) turned out, on close read- ing of the credits, to be the only significant part dubbed by a pianist other than David Helfgott.
Anyway, what should I have expected? The film did what films do: it created a fan- tasy. In truth, it would require a literal mir- acle for any pianist to take a decade's holiday from serious practice, undergo electric shock treatment, and who knows what medications, and come out the other end still a virtuoso. David Helfgott was and still is mentally disabled. Whatever its aeti- ology, his disease is not something explained by life with an unpleasant father. This is a view shared by Helfgott's sister, Margaret, who has objected to the 'deroga- tory and insulting' portrayal of their father in the film. As for their mother, who now lives in Israel, she has stated that Shine `haunts me day and night . . . I feel an evil has been done'. It should hardly come as a surprise to learn that Helfgott's abilities as a pianist are as fancifully portrayed in the film as are other features of his life.
The result of this complex crossing of musical truth and dramatic fiction has been a deep and bitter controversy. The lovers of the tradition of piano artistry from Rach- maninov and Josef Hofmann through to Gould and Martha Argerich are absolutely right to find Helfgott's incoherent, grunting performances a travesty of piano art. But how then do we account for the feelings of his fans? They leave his concerts inspired by a deep sense of human communication. Quality of piano playing is for them not the issue, rather the triumph of someone who has been hauled back from the abyss. Still, I don't think celebrity and victimhood alone can account for the intensity of their emotions.
Writing of Helfgott's Boston debut in the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini remarked that 'it is hard to imagine that lis- teners, whose first experience of Beethoven's colossal Waldstein Sonata was Helfgott's sketchy monodynamic perfor- mance, went away with any idea of this music's boldness and feisty vitality'. It may be hard to imagine, but not impossible. Doubtless there were many thousands of music listeners in the 19th century who only knew the Waldstein through amateur performances even less adequate than Helfgott's. I'd be reluctant to say that none of them knew about the boldness and vital- ity of the music.
Even a flaccid, inaccurate performance of the Waldstein is a presentation of one of the summits of piano music. If a naive audience finds in the experience of the Waldstein that new musical vistas are being Opened before it, perhaps it is right. The same can be said for Chopin, even badly played. If Helfgott's audience is listening intently for the spark of genius, who can blame them for being a little confused? Their only mistake is to imagine it's the particular talent of David Helfgott that is achieving some miracle of human expres- sion and musical pleasure. There are geniuses at work in Helfgott's recitals, but they are our old friends Chopin, Liszt and Beethoven — minds whose musical ideas will always outlive marketing hype.
I hope that some of the Helfgott fans move on to better things, that in a few years names such as Ashkenazy, Schiff and Pletnev will be familiar to them. Maybe by then, they'll look back on the Helfgott episode as some of us look back on the Pastoral Symphony sequence from Fantasia. It was kitsch, to be sure, but it could also be a young person's first glimpse of Mount Beethoven.
Alas, for me, sadly watching Helfgott's dabblings and the audience's unrestrained enthusiasm, it wasn't Beethoven, Horowitz or even Disney I was thinking of. It was the spectre of Blind Tom.
The mentally retarded Tom, born a slave in Georgia in 1850, was toured by his owner in the late 19th century as 'the great- est musical prodigy since Mozart'. Lauded by the media of his day as 'incredibly gift- ed', Tom attracted more attention than all other American pianists put together. He even played at the White House. Tom died in obscurity in New Jersey in 1908. Where his exploiters retired to is unrecorded.
There's no likelihood that David Helf- gott will die in the poorhouse. Nor, it must be said, will the producers, associate pro- ducers, managers and even lawyers listed in the back of his programme. But his con- certs will continue to raise vexing questions as he and his entourage stumble and mut- ter towards the sold-out Royal Festival Hall on Monday.
Denis Dutton teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. He is editor of the journal Phi- losophy and Literature (Johns Hopkins Uni- versity Press). Further recitals by David Helfgott will take place in London, Notting- ham, Birmingham and Glasgow; for tour information call: 0990 274444.
Mr Freemantle will see you as soon as he's got nothing better to do.'