Helfgott's wife hits back as pianist gets ready to shine

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The David Helfgott show flew into Britain yesterday with a pre- concert performance by his wife Gillian, who told the press how her husband's first wife had given him the two-and-a-half unhappiest years of his life.

The Australian pianist, made famous by the film Shine, was rehearsing in London in preparation for his sold-out concert at the Royal Festival Hall today.

Helfgott, who was unknown in Britain this time last year, now has an album at the top of the classical charts, following the Oscar-winning account of his mental breakdown and conflict with his father.

Since then, his sister, brother - and yesterday his first wife - have all given interviews saying the film and the supposed battle with his father are travesties of the truth.

Helfgott allowed journalists to sit in on one of his final rehearsals as he casually performed his signature tune, Rachmaninov's third piano concerto.

Characteristically stooped, the musician muttered unceasingly to himself as he played the piece, which the film has already made a best-seller in 12 countries.

Shoulders hunched, he smiled and sang to himself while playing Liszt, as he apparently does on stage. He then stopped, and shook hands with all the cameramen.

Next door, his wife was rebutting criticisms of her husband's life story. And she rebutted them most vigorously.

She said: "With Shine David was able to share the story of his pain. He loved his father very much and his father loved him, but perhaps not wisely. The film has given him this new sense of self awareness, self respect and strength, and he is surrounded by love.

"I have been referred to as controlling David. Whoever wrote that, I just wish they could give me some clues how to do it."

Asked why his first wife was written out of the script of Shine and is not mentioned in Helfgott's biographical highlights, issued to the press, yesterday, she responded: "It was probably two-and-a-half of the unhappiest years of David's life. When she had an operation she put him in a psychiatric hospital. When she came to collect him he told her he would rather stay in the hospital.

"I think is a fair indication of the standard of the marriage."

His manager announced that Helfgott had already been greeted by innumerable packed concert halls and 72 standing ovations during his tour and said he would be returning to England for more later this year.

In what promoters are billing as "the biggest engagement of his life", Helfgott will be back in October to play the Rachmaninov piece again at the Royal Albert Hall, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 1970, after performing the same music at the same London venue, illness descended upon Helfgott and he retreated to spend years in mental institutions. It was only in 1984 that he returned to the concert platform.