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It's a testament to the Melbourne-born pianist that his takes on the most demanding classical masterworks will leave you in greater spirits

It's 8.30am in Tuscany. The sun is shining on the mountains and geraniums bloom between the olive trees outside villa Helfgott. It's some view from the upstairs bath, where maestro David di Australia is literally flat out practising his Polonaise.

"He'll probably be there for an hour, lying there thinking about his music and the beauty of the surroundings," says his wife Gillian, completing as romantic a musical picture as one can imagine.

"Not all of his time is spent at the piano. Often he'll find a comfortable chair, take the music [manuscript] and sit quietly and just study the notes and let it go through his mind."

It is an exceptional mind, as illustrated by Scott Hicks' 1996 biopic, Shine. Geoffrey Rush won an Oscar for his portrayal of the Aussie concert pianist whose prodigious talent was derailed by schizoaffective disorder, then rekindled via the love of the very woman who now speaks on his behalf.

She knows she's told this story before — it was adapted for a scene in the film — but she chuckles with delight to recall the time she negotiated a time limit to get her husband out of a swimming pool.

"David, why don't you swim the Liszt B-minor Sonata?"

So he did, emerging 30 minutes later to qualify his victory with "Darling, I have played it better."

"It's one of the hardest pieces ever written for piano," she feels bound to mention.

The energetic execution of the most demanding classical masterworks has been a hallmark of Helfgott's reputation since his death-defying signature piece, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, became colloquially know as the Shine Concerto.

He'll perform it again in Sydney on his imminent return to Australia, but a less predictable and more expansive program is planned for the city of his birth — or at least the Yarra Ranges Shire, an hour's drive to the east.

Chopin will star in the first half: his Sonata in B-minor preceded by the Polonaise in A-flat which Helfgott has been channelling, Gillian says, via a film of the great Arthur Rubinstein circa 1950.

"David has been listening to this DVD and watching it for the past five weeks and you can see the influence," she says. "He played the Polonaise two nights ago and it's the best I've ever heard him play it. Suddenly, there it was."

Rachmaninoff, "the composer he has the most affinity with", will infiltrate the second half of the program at Healesville August 8, repeated at Montrose August 9 and 10. "It's a big program," says Gillian, noting again that "David loves playing the challenging works."

It's fair to add that critics have been divided these last 20 years on the quality of Helfgott's execution. Many are distracted by his eccentricities, which include an unscripted top line of audible chatter and atonal vocalisations. One school of thought suspects that Shine has de-emphasised the music in favour of a cult of personality more often associated with the pop world.

"But you go to a David concert and people walk out happier, on the whole, than I see at other concerts," Gillian counters. "They come away with a sense of his joy, his pleasure in sharing. All right, some people will be annoyed by his mannerisms. On the other hand, you can go to concerts and be annoyed by the remoteness of the pianist.

"The piano is David's life and passion. He says 'Away from the piano, I'm a bit of a mouse. As soon as I sit down to play I'm a leaping lion!'"

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By Michael Dwyer   |   Photos by Wendy Martin

David Helfgott: Healesville details

235 Maroondah Highway, Healesville

Price $44.00

Date Fri 08 Aug 2014

Memorial Hall Healesville map

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