Mr and Mrs David Helfgott are very much at home

Ann Treneman
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:07

David Helfgott is probably the most famous pianist in the world and his wife Gillian is the world's most famous pianist's wife, but not necessarily the most applauded. She is accused of many things, exploitation high among them. But when Ann Treneman met them she found a couple comfortable with each other and a woman with shine.

Gillian Helfgott has been called formidable, a controlling wife, a money-grubber. They say she has exploited her husband David - the extraordinary pianist whose story inspired the movie Shine - by encouraging a world tour that some critics have labelled a freak show.

"How could they do this to him?" asked one headline of David who has been known to add the odd flourish to Beethoven and often mutters and talks to the piano on stage. Undoubtedly there will be more of the same - both reviews and mutters - when he appears at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday. There may even be a repeating of the off-stage criticisms about Gillian's taste in shoes or the state of their private life. "They cannot seem to imagine that we have a sex life!" she says. "That is ridiculous. David is a very lovely and sensual man. I am more satisfied than most women!"

Her voice is loud and Australian and the exasperated words float in the still air of the Athenaeum Hotel lounge like brightly coloured balloons. It is breakfast-time and I swear I can hear a collective pricking up of ears. Gillian probably does too and doesn't care one bit. After all, she has spent 14 years at the side of a man who creates a stir wherever he goes. There is no way you can be David Helfgott's wife and be the shy and retiring type.

"Hello, hello, hello. Got to smile, got to smile, got to smile," chatters David as he greets us with a clingy hug and a kind of O-shaped kiss that hangs for a very long time about a half inch away from the cheek. He does the same to the photographer and then tries to shake the hands of almost everyone else in the room. We then sit or, to be more precise, the rest of us sit while he vibrates and chatters.

The wordflow is incessant: if Gillian is talking, he parrots her phrases until he is centre-stage again. "The father was too domineering, too domineering, too domineering," he mutters. He often refers to his father, the man who ruined his life by being too possessive. Peter Helfgott refused to let David go to America to study at the age of 14 and later David would defy him by coming to Royal College of Music in London. But his act of rebellion may have also been his undoing: four months after giving a brilliant concert at which he played the infamous Rakhmaninov's Concerto No 3 he was admitted to a mental institution.

He would be in and out of them for 12 more years and it was only after he met Gillian in 1983 that his "nervous disorder" was controlled to any real extent. The story of his comeback is the subject for the Oscar-winning Shine and David is now on the last leg of the post-Shine tour.

Back in the Athenaeum lounge, the conversation has jumped from Polish composers to dreams to the "Rakh 3" which David is going to play on Monday. He is very good on facts - Gillian says he reads encyclopedias constantly and is a CNN junkie - but often interrupts himself to request a piano, a Coke or a cup of coffee. "This nice gentleman is going to bring me a Diet Coke," he says to the passing waiter as Gillian shakes her head. Every day is a caffeine battle. Later she confides that she has had to lock the Diet Coke, the tea bags and the bottle-opener in the hotel safe. "Can you imagine!"

Not really, but then again one imagines a lot more after 10 minutes with David Helfgott than you ever thought possible. He asks for a piano again but it is off limits for another half hour so that people can eat their breakfast without the accompaniment of the world's most popular concert pianist. He leaves anyway with a few words of advice. "Don't be addictive, be creative! Don't be greedos!" he says. (Other words from his own language include "potchnagoola" for kisses and "plentchuous" as in plenty.)

Gillian and David Helfgott are serial optimists but it is clear that the attacks by some music critics over the Shine tour have upset them greatly. "It was terrible! They've said he's been exploited, that he is a puppet, only as good as a third-grade student, that he is a fraud," says Gillian. "Some of it was extremely painful. They were writing things that were so off the mark about David being exploited. They all seemed to be acting as if we dragged him out of an institution. David is a 50- year-old man and he makes up his own mind about things."

She returns to the theme of the reviews again and again, chewing over the words of this or that critic. She recounts in detail the opinion of a Miami critic who declared that if David kept playing with the same joy and honesty then he had every right to be on the concert platform as a musician and not just as a phenomenon. She adds that sometimes David rectifies his playing after reading a constructive review. "As for freak show, well there have been very eccentric performers before. In America, they were calling Pavarotti a freak show this summer. At least David is in good company."

She says she is not defensive. "I know he is doing what he loves. I feel very privileged and I'm very proud. He really is shining on," she says. But a minute later she is defending his habit of muttering on stage. "David is not alone in that. It's terribly important not to crush individual artists. He takes risks. Horowitz used to get some dreadful reviews too. So did Chopin and Beethoven."

It is at this point that I start to like Gillian Helfgott because she obviously cares so much. "But aren't the critics missing the point?" she asks. "My question is: who is doing more for classical music in the world, the critics or David Helfgott?

"He's had standing ovations around the world, even in Switzerland and France where they usually are fairly slow to stand up. And it's not just because of Shine. He was on tour for 10 years before that. He gets standing ovations because he is passionate about music, takes risks and brings so much joy to the stage. He loves the piano. It's his life and he runs up to it like a child. There are no barriers with David. He read one review that said the night was a very sad occasion and he turned to me and said: `Darling, how is four standing ovations a sad occasion?'"

Gillian Helfgott used to be a professional astrologer - she is a triple Sagittarius and he is a Taurean with Gemini rising - and she believes it was her destiny to be David's partner. "David is an extraordinary human being. I'm a good solid energetic backstop." She is 65 and he is 50 and she says that she doubts a younger woman could have dealt with the issues. "He needed somebody there 24 hours a day and he hadn't had that since his first marriage went wrong," she says.

"That really was a tragic relationship. It must have been pretty bad to want to stay in a mental institution rather than stay with your wife." She has met his first wife, Clara, once and has no desire to see her again. The feeling, evidently, is mutual as Clara has said that David is being exploited.

This really does seem rubbish from the simple vantage point that David clearly does know what he likes to do and that is to perform. Nor is there a shortage of people to go and see him. They say he touches the very spirit of the music and hundreds write in to say so. "I might just write another little book about touring and about healing," says Gillian, her eyes full of emotion. "It's extraordinary. David gives people such tremendous joy." We say goodbye (more hugs) and David, naturally, has the last word. "Awesome and vast, awesome and vast, awesome and vast." And for a moment, it seems exactly so.

All seats have been sold for David Helfgott's appearance at the Royal Albert Hall on Monday but gallery standing tickets at pounds 12.50 each are available on 0171-589 8212

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