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  • The David Helfgott Saga
  • Peter Feuchtwanger

When Verdi’s favorite singer, Adelina Patti, retired from the stage, thousands upon thousands of admirers lined the pavements with torches to bid her farewell. In those days it was Patti, Melba, Sembrich and Caruso who made news. Today, however, a classical musician rarely hits the headlines, unless of course, he is a David Helfgott. Granted, Helfgott’s fame rests largely upon the Oscar winning film Shine, which has succeeded in bringing a new type of audience to classical music. Yet on reflection, were those audiences of a hundred years ago that much different from today’s?

Patti was considered to be the greatest singer of her time, and was admired by composers such as Verdi, Rossini and Gounod, and every discerning music lover in America and Europe. But according to the eminent New York critic W. J. Henderson, Patti’s “audiences are curious collections of persons who never or very rarely go to hear music of a high order. . . .” The same could be said of David Helfgott’s audience, the great majority of whom are newcomers to classical music, although there are numerous professional musicians who have also come under his spell.

At the Boston Airport Security Check, the man inspecting my hand luggage discovered a photo of David Helfgott in my bag. “Gee buddy” he exclaimed, “I know him . . . I just bought his Rach 3, the first classical record I ever owned, and I intend to buy many more from now on.” On the other side of the coin, you have Shura Cherkassky, one of the century’s greatest pianists, who after much persuasion (he nursed a dread of everything not completely normal) consented to listen to Helfgott. The Australian pianist’s playing profoundly touched Cherkassky’s innermost feelings, creating an impression that never left him.

Long before Shine became a word on everyone’s lips, David had already played to capacity audiences at the Beethoven House in Bonn, and in the Tivoli in Copenhagen, where he received the highest critical acclaim. When Tibor Varga heard David play in one of my masterclasses in Sion, Switzerland, the distinguished violinist was immensely impressed and asked David if he would accompany him in the Brahms D minor Sonata op. 108. Although David had never played the work before, he immediately took up the challenge, and without rehearsal, [End Page 334] prima vista, gave what Tibor Varga declared to be the finest performance of the sonata he could remember.

A year or two later, at another masterclass where David had been accompanying, Ivry Gitlis referred to David as the “personification of music.” Recently in the artists’ room after a recital given by the English pianist William Howard (an ex-student of mine and the founder of The Schubert Ensemble of London), I noted how agitated William appeared while speaking to a well-wisher. William later confided to me that in the course of their conversation, this person had made derogatory remarks about David Helfgott. When questioned on whether he had actually ever heard Helfgott play, the man replied in the negative, admitting that all his information had come by way of dismissive notices in the press. William was incensed, and advised the man to go and listen to David in person and arrive at his own conclusions. On more than one occasion William had found David’s playing unforgettable. In fact he remembered one recital in particular that remained for him the most moving experience of his life!

Admittedly these performances took place some ten years ago, and to be fair to his detractors, Helfgott’s playing for as long as I care to remember has been uneven. So should critics catch him on an off day they cannot be entirely blamed for expressing their wrath. However, many great pianists of the past were uneven. Looking back on my youth, I was fortunate to have heard Alfred Cortot on several occasions. One day he played magnificently, the next day so badly as to be almost unrecognizable.

In 1959 I attended a piano recital at London’s Wigmore Hall, where Youra Guller (1895–1981), an artist of mystical stature in the world of music, was to...

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