David Helfgott was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1947. He showed extraordinary pianistic ability from an early age, winning the state finals of the ABC’s Instrumental & Vocal Competition six times.
At age 17, David began studying with Alice Carrard, a former student of Bartok and Istvan Thoman, himself a pupil of Liszt. Two years later, David went to London to study at the Royal College of Music with Cyril Smith, who described him as his most brilliant student in 25 years of teaching and likened him to Horowitz, both technically and temperamentally.
David won a number of awards at the College, including the Dannreuther Prize for Best Concerto Performance for his triumphant performance of Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto. However, towards the end of his time in London, David faced increased emotional instability and mental excitability, compounded by the death in Perth of his mentor, writer Katherine Susannah Pritchard.
A period of frequent hospitalization followed during the 1970s, but by 1976 David had moved to a halfway house where he stayed for six years. The greatest crisis for David had been the loss of his inner music, but he remembers the day the music came back: “The fog lifted, I could hear again … I survived.”
David was brought back to the public’s attention by Dr Chris Reynolds, who owned Riccardo’s wine bar in Perth, where David performed on Saturday nights. It was there he meet his future wife, Gillian, who, with the support of promoter Mike Parry, helped David gradually resume his concert career with concert performances in Perth and a sell-out tour of Australia’s eastern states in 1986. This was followed by a trip to Europe, with recitals in Germany and Denmark.
David triumphantly returned to an active life of concert-giving and performance, and made a series of CDs, including the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning film Shine, which celebrates his remarkable and inspiring life. David’s recording of the Rachmaninov Third was the number one selling CD in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom for many months. Both attained gold status.
In October 1996, David played four sold-out concerts at the Sydney Opera House, an unprecedented occurrence. A challenging world tour followed the next year, with packed recitals and performances throughout the US and the UK, concluding with David’s return to the Royal Albert Hall in London, were he played the Rachmaninov Third to a capacity crowd and received a thunderous standing ovation.
Over the next five years, David kept up his world touring, through Asia, Africa, Japan, New Zealand and Europe, while also maintaining a busy Australian schedule. David released four more CDs, including Brilliantissimo, Brave New World, and one featuring the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No.1 and Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Paganini, two of David’s favourite works. However, the highlight release for this year was In Viva, a disc containing two movements of the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 24 from David’s prize-winning performance in Perth when he was fourteen years of age.
In 2002, David was invited to represent Australia at the Beijing Music Festival and in Guangzhou, while 2003 saw a triumphant tour of Europe – particularly of Austria, where he completely won the hearts of the Viennese.
One of the major highlights of David’s career came in October 2004 when the Edith Cowan University in Western Australia awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Music. His whole family was in attendance.
David conquered Europe yet again in 2005 and 2006. In Italy, he played the Rachmaninov Third in Montecatini Terme, where both Verdi and Puccini lived and where David and Gillian were awarded the Key of the City. Then it was on to sell-out performances of the concerto in Vienna and Zurich, plus many recitals in Spain, Norway and Denmark. On 26 November 2006, David was inducted into The Australian Walk of Fame.
In 2007 and 2008, David had extremely successful return tours of South Africa, New Zealand and Japan, and major European tours. But his recital in Sydney in November at the City Recital Hall gained the greatest accolades heard in the Hall in recent memory.
The year 2009 opened with David receiving a huge honour when a 2.7 metre sculpture by the internationally recognized sculpture, John Van Der Kolk, was dedicated to David and placed in the Bellingen Council Park in recognition of David’s courage, contribution to music and his work in the community.
In June, David performed in Israel for the first time in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv as part of the Australian-Israel Cultural Exchange, and then toured Turkey and Europe, with a very successful recital in Vienna receiving one of the greatest ovations of David’s career. He will return there in October 2010, as well as play in Luzern and Denmark.
This extraordinary artist is continuing to receive the worldwide recognition that his remarkable technical and interpretative genius deserves. His continuing success comes as no surprise to David’s legion of devoted admirers everywhere. They have long regarded his recitals as transcending mere music-making. They are an affirmation of the tenacity of the human spirit and imagination.