Mad about the pianist: a Hollywood obsession with insanity

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The Independent Culture
The Hands of Orlac tells the story of a concert pianist caught in a train crash, who is miraculously unmarked except for his hands, which are mangled beyond repair. "Prepare for amputation," says a doctor grimly. "No! Those hands must be saved!" screams his wife, who summons the top surgeon in the land. Enter soft-spoken Peter Lorre, who secretly replaces them with the transplanted hands of a freshly guillotined knife-thrower. The miracle turns sour when the bewildered virtuoso can no longer play the piano, but finds himself compulsively throwing knives. Preposterous? Sure, but this story has been made into three films: you couldn't wish for neater evidence of Hollywood's strange love affair with the embattled gods of the keyboard.

Particularly when those gods are facing superhuman challenges. The symbolic relationship implicit in all piano concertos - lone hero versus menacing horde - informs film after film from the Thirties and Forties. Rachmaninov's Second pervades the whole of Brief Encounter with its noble, doomed intensity. The Warsaw Concerto - a skilful Rachmaninov pastiche - was composed for the Battle of Britain romance Dangerous Moonlight so that the miracle of air-ace/pianist Anton Walbrook's survival of two plane crashes - returning each time to the concert platform - could be musically underscored. "If we could get him better," muses a surgeon over the pianist's recumbent form, "I'd feel we had done something for the world." If Scott Hicks's Shine wins an Oscar, it will be because the film taps directly into this perennial obsession.

And Shine is by no means the first film to show a pianist's sanity caving in under the pressure of the job. William Humble's Virtuoso, screened on BBC2 in 1989, reflected a real-life drama every bit as poignant as David Helfgott's. British pianist John Ogdon enjoyed huge success in his early twenties after winning the Moscow Tchaikovsky competition, but was then stricken with schizophrenia. In Virtuoso, Alfred Molina movingly portrays his descent into paranoid, violent madness, and his subsequent partial rehabilitation as a performer. And there are many parallels with Shine, from Ogdon's incompetence in small practicalities like tying his shoelaces, to his wife's defiant words to the doctor who wants to sedate him: "I married, for better or worse, a great pianist. Take that away and there's nothing."

A great pianist: if there's a mystique about the breed, it's based in reality. For concert pianists - all concert pianists - must combine the strength of an athlete with the skill of a juggler; they must perform their aesthetic feats without safety-nets; if they stumble and fall, they endure very public humiliation. And the marketplace is desperately crowded: the current British Music Yearbook lists a staggering 650 of them, only a few of whom can live comfortably from their art. No wonder they crack up.

And it was ever thus: pianists have traditionally been entertainers with a crazy streak. American audiences in 1850 used to try to work out how Sigismond Thalberg got his "three-hand" effects; Spanish audiences marvelled at Isaac Albeniz's playing with his hands upside-down. Leopold de Meyer - the Lion Pianist - sometimes played with his thumbs alone, sometimes with his fists or his knees. Mendelssohn said that the salon pianist Henri Herz put him in mind of rope-dancers and acrobats.

Vladimir de Pachmann - one of many virtuosi from Odessa - earned his nickname, "The Chopinzee", through his claim that the dirty, old dressing- gown in which he received visitors was Chopin's own. In performance, he crouched so low over the piano that nobody could see his hands: this was to prevent rivals seeing the fingering he used to obtain his effects. Sometimes he stopped in mid-piece to ask what his audience thought so far. And he muttered and growled. "M Vladimir de Pachmann," wrote George Bernard Shaw, "gave his well-known pantomimic performance, with accompaniments by Chopin." But growling is perennial: Alfred Brendel is one of many contemporary pianists who thus accompany themselves.

The most famous growler of modern times was the late Glenn Gould, but this was the least of his eccentricities: his mad perfectionism - which finally drove him out of the concert hall - is well caught in Francois Girard's 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.

The Odessan Shura Cherkassky, who died in December 1995, aged 86 and at the height of his powers, had to enact a string of rituals before he could perform. Among other things, he had to eat the "right" number of grapes 90 minutes before playing, and step on stage with his right foot first.

All piano virtuosi start as prodigies; many wind up as recluses. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli - possibly the most flawless pianist this century - once kept a Berlin audience waiting two hours until the piano was prepared exactly as he wanted it; in later life, his cancellations outnumbered his performances. Chopin's contemporary Charles-Valentin Alkan, now the focus of a growing cult led by pianist Jack Gibbons, spent his last 30 years closeted alone with his books, before being fatally trapped beneath a fallen bookcase. And the life of Hungarian virtuoso Ervin Nyiregyhazi was even stranger. For 30 years, this former prodigy lived in West Coast doss-houses, never touching a piano, until one day - shades of Shine - old friends with long memories persuaded him to give a concert in a San Francisco church. Whereupon a new and glittering career began.

In some cases, fear of failure becomes a chronic disability. The 19th- century German pianist Adolf Henselt - whose "velvet paws" were admired by Liszt - was made physically ill by the mere thought of an audience, and only managed three concerts in 33 years. He made up for it in private, however, giving lessons in St Petersburg dressed in a white suit and a red fez, and brandishing a fly-swat.

Occasionally, that fear can lead to tragedy, as with the British pianist Terence Judd, who this month makes a brief archival appearance in Channel 4's four-part expose of the music business, Naked Classics. Judd made his Festival Hall debut at 11, won a prize in the Tchaikovsky competition at 20, and two years later - due back in Russia for a concert tour - was found dead at Beachy Head. A young pianists' award has since been set up in his name to support fresh heroes, ready to scale the heightsn

Channel 4's `Naked Classics' series begins Sun, 7.30pm. Shura Cherkassky's collected live recordings are available on Decca; Michelangeli's early recordings on Teldec

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