Helfgott raises the rafters, but fails to shine

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They flocked in their hundreds to see the bullied genius of the Oscar-winning film Shine commune with the muses and they will not have been disappointed.

David Helfgott, the Australian pianist who is the subject of the film, received a standing ovation last night at the Royal Festival Hall in London having rallied and raged through Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, stamping at the pedals in the second movement, singing through the last page of the first and thundering the keys with a force that might have raised the dead.

The audience was spellbound as much by Helfgott's startling stage manner - his muttering, shouting, singing, grimacing and arm-waving - as by his arresting but madly inconsistent piano playing. He would skip on to the stage, turn around like a clockwork toy, bow repeatedly then hurry to the piano stool, give a shout and start to perform.

He opened the recital with Mendelssohn, lingering prosaically over the Andante, stressing the odd right-hand melodic line then flying off in all directions for a fleet-fingered but shapeless rondo Capriccioso.

Rachmaninov's G sharp minor prelude seemed oddly mechanical - Lizst's Un Sospiro vague in outline.

But when it came to La Campanella, Helfgott would drop his arms during musical rests, huff and puff, then show his mettle with some distinctly impressive fingerwork. Lizst's second ballade is a brute of a piece that needs firm handling and I can't only say that Helfgott kept it in check.

By now his mannerisms and eccentricities were gaining the upper hand. One girl nearby broke into uncontrollable giggles, another scowled contemptuously. The effect was somewhere between blood-lust, circus entertainment and public analysis - almost as if the entire audience was experiencing some sort of spontaneous sort of group catharsis. In a sense, theHelfgott phenomenon was providing its own soundtrack and that was what seemed to appeal most.

Forget the fact that he reinvented part of Lizst's sixth rhapsody and garbled his way through Rimsky's Flight of the Bumble Bee, I have never witnessed so many screams for encores even in cases where the musical performance justified them. Helfgott's, however, did not and I found myself thinking how unfair it is that a pianist with saleable eccentricities is cheered to the rooftops while his many young superiors have to struggle for recognition. Still, I suppose one should not complain if both music and madness benefit from a spot of positive publicity.

Last night's performance is followed by three more concerts in London later this year, culminating in a gala performance at the Royal Albert Hall.

Rob Cowan