Classical Records on CD: Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 3; Sonata No 2; Preludes David Helfgott Copenhagen Philharmonic / Milan Horvat RCA 74321 40378 2
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Friday 31 January 1997
The answers are unsettling. This performance of the "Rach 3" (as Gielgud's preposterously Shakespearian Cyril Scott would have it) was recorded in 1995, more than a decade after Helfgott's triumphant return to the concert platform, and it is possible (though dangerous) to read it as a very personal and painful voyage of rediscovery.
Passages used in the movie (which goes on general release today) take on melodramatic associations: the first movement cadenza is suddenly ripped from bitter experience. But consider what we actually hear (grunting and groaning aside): a player, a performance "on the edge", a will-he / won't- he-make-it kind of performance. The willpower is inspiring, and one still recognises in Helfgott a player of presence and instinct who can and does make magic in the "discovery", the placing of certain phrases (the quiet sequence of chords just prior to the home-stretch of the finale is a case in point). But it comes and goes, and when it goes you feel it go.
His technical control is forever losing ground, the bravura elements massively compromised, not least in the finale where smudged and missing notes (fistfuls of them) fracture and displace Rachmaninov's complex rhythmic configurations.
Add to that a second-rate orchestra, a conductor barely hanging on to his soloists tails, and a dry, boxy recording, and you're looking at a souvenir, not a viable documentation of the music contained here. But perhaps that's what people want.
David Helfgott came back from the brink to shine again. But is it too late for him to make up the lost years? Will he ever regain stability as an artist? Or could the current media exploitation riding on the back of this movie tip him over the edge once more? Now that would be a tragedy. Edward Seckerson
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