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  • Beethoven on Prozac
  • Denis Dutton

With the musical reputation of David Helfgott now in tatters, the question persists how an incompetent, mentally deranged pianist has found himself touring to sold-out halls, promoted in the expensive souvenir program 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. Their repeated descriptions of Helfgott as a “genius,” as “the ‘90s version of Horowitz and Rubinstein,” in the words of an official of his recording company, have rubbed knowledgeable piano aficionados the wrong way. The excusing of his loud grunts and mutterings during performances by comparisons with the great Glenn Gould (who was normally silent in recitals) are merely offensive, as are comparisons with Horowitz’s neuroses or de Pachmann’s eccentric behavior: all of these artists were men whose technical and artistic accomplishments are beyond serious question.

The controversy in the United States and Britain duplicates patterns established by Helfgott’s appearances in New Zealand, where he began his 1997 world tour. Perhaps his handlers were hoping for a gentle start, working up toward the concert halls and critics north of the equator. 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 listeners dismissed his performances as inaccurate, eccentric, self-indulgent, and amateurish. There were repeated references to circus and freak shows, and assertions that without the movie 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 analogy of 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 was not so much listening to a piano recital as eavesdropping on someone’s therapy session. [End Page 340]

To judge by the indignation and outrage these criticisms provoked, you’d have thought someone had accused the Queen Mother of shop-lifting or ridiculed the Special Olympics. Among the dozens of concert goers complaining about frank newspaper reviews, one woman wrote, “This wasn’t just a piano recital, it was a chance to touch the world of an extraordinary human being, and everyone with a heart will have been enriched by the experience.” 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 evaluation 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 portrayed 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 evident that Helfgott’s New Zealand audiences were made up largely of Shine fans who had never before attended a classical piano recital. They applauded between movements of the Beethoven’s Waldstein, and even during the Chopin F minor Ballade, in which they were abetted by Helfgott himself. 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 continued elsewhere on his tour.

When I saw him in New Zealand, Helfgott played with suggestions of...

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