Flamboyant, Goofy and Heartfelt, Hardly a Conventional Performance
David Helfgott comes out on stage of the Konzerthaus in a sky blue Indian silk tunic, nearly skipping along, a half shuffle, half dance, his bald pate bobbing. He rushes up to the edge of the stage and reaches out to the audience members in the front row, clasping a hand here, a hand there in two of his, then bounces back to the piano and sits down at the keyboard.
Even forewarned, it’s a startling entry and one hardly knows what to think. Is this for real? Can this strange man really play the piano?
Suddenly he breaks into the opening flourishes of a virtuosic show piece by Franz Liszt – perhaps the Hungarian Rhapsody, listed among the selections on the program that Helfgott will play as the mood strikes him – with lots of fingers flying, laying to rest the basic question of whether he can actually play.
But it’s hardly a conventional performance.This music is elastic, bending and stretching, a bit erratic and filled with whimsy – none of the reliable tempos one is used to. This is goofy, you start thinking…
And then something odd happens – voices start emerging, loosened from their usual moorings, more sharply defined somehow, and you start listening in a different way.
Audiences come to hear David Helfgott because of the film Shine, a remarkable cinematic portrait of his troubled, and ultimately inspiring, life story, which earned actor Geoffrey Rush an Oscar, and received nominations in eight other categories. It is a tale of a young Australian prodigy with a controlling father, who suffers a massive nervous breakdown on the threshold of what has the makings of an important solo career.
After years of life in a mental institution, he gradually finds his way out of it in late middle age, first playing for friends in a restaurant and eventually, to return triumphantly to the stage. The accuracy of the film portrait has been contested by one sibling and confirmed by two others, as has the true stature of Helfgott’s musicianship by modern concert standards. But as the evening made increasingly clear, the quality of this man’s music making lay somewhere else.
The first piece ends. Helfgott is on his feet again bowing, bobbing from the waist one, two, three times, and then rushing to the edge of the stage again to shake some more hands.
He sits back down, and dives back into the keyboard, as a rumbling begins in the lower octaves, builds and grows, and bursts into the majestic theme of the Grand Polonaise, Op. 53 of Frederic Chopin, an heroic, irresistible crowd pleaser that was a signature piece of Arthur Rubenstein.
Again, it’s not steady; Helfgott’s playing feels rather spontaneous, pulling on the tempos, allowing the implied momentary pauses that other pianists parade over and ignore. As you listen, though, it becomes increasingly convincing, as the separate voices ring out with unusual clarity. This is perhaps closer to a performance style more typical of the 19th century that the 21st, before the hyper-perfections of the recording age had taken hold. Yet however eccentric, this is a mind fully in charge of the threads in the weave, that surges and ebbs through the harmonic fabric of the piece.
As he plays, Helfgott keeps turning his head to look out at the audience – another performance no-no – to check up on us, to make sure we’re getting it. This guy really wants to connect.
He finishes the last chords. Again, he jumps up in excitement, lifting his arms at shoulder height, thumbs up, and again trots along the stage reaching for another couple of hands, then trots back.
Next is Chopin’s B Minor Ballade, another large scale show piece, familiar to many from Roman Polanski’s film, The Pianist. But with all the churning waves of sound, the massive chords, 10ths and scales in octaves, it is movingly sweet, and you find yourself thinking about the fragility of a mind, and the miracle of how all those powers come together in a human being to make music.
At the enormously deft passages, Helfgott launches into the phrases as if he were simply waving his hand or throwing a ball. After the triumphant finale, he again rushes out to the audience, beaming with pleasure, he points at the keyboard, and gives a thumbs up. Then it’s on to Liszt’s La Campanella, a monstrously difficult piano version of a Niccolo Paganini Etude, in which the little bell of the title seems to keep tinkling out in the upper registers all on it’s own, while the rest of the voices go on their already complex way below.
The whole experience is a little weird, even silly, but also touching. This man absolutely refuses to behave according to the conventions of the concert hall. You get the unmistakable sense that performing for Helfgott is about sharing his pleasure, his amazement and wonder that this wonderful music exists, and that playing the piano at all is even possible. He is a man-boy, still charmed by the magic and surprise of his own talent.