Pianists David Helfgott and Mei Yi Foo perform contrasting recitals

Australian pianist David Helfgott and Malaysian pianist Mei Yi Foo performed solo recitals on two consecutive nights in Istanbul last week. Both recitals were intriguing. One was artistically superb.

On the strength of the 1996 film “Shine,” a cinematic treatment of Helfgott’s struggles with autism, a sold-out crowd packed the Istanbul Congress Center on April 15 to hear him play works by Chopin and Liszt. It amazes me that 18 years later, the marketing value of that film, which won an Oscar for the actor who portrayed Helfgott, has the lasting power to sell tickets to his classical piano recital tours around the world. Now almost 67, Helfgott is still triumphing publicly — ostensibly despite whatever level of autism he has. Despite questionable musicianship, he and the marketing engines behind him are successful largely because of his reputed illness and the public’s relatively fresh memory of the film.

By marketing value, I mean Helfgott is big business, by classical music standards. His concert was sponsored by Yapı Kredi Bank, which also hosted last year’s recital by violinist Itzhak Perlman, who will be making his second Istanbul appearance in a year on April 29 (again with Yapı Kredi as the concert’s sponsor). The marketing materials (specially designed packaging for his printed program as well as significant amounts of media advertising) for Helfgott’s audience at the Istanbul Congress Center involve an expenditure that other concert venues would scarcely be able to cover. While I wholeheartedly commend luxurious expenditures on great artists like Perlman and other classical luminaries who richly deserve it, I have questions about whether Helfgott is in that same category.

My questions were answered that evening, the second time I heard him play in Istanbul. On the first occasion, I was dumbfounded by his vaudeville-style antics (like stopping in the middle of a Chopin ballade and giving a thumbs-up gesture to the audience as if to say “here comes the best part!”). Thus, I had summed up his half-hyperactive child and half-adult musician spectacle as an unwitting channeling of Harpo Marx. This time, mercifully, he concentrated more on the music instead of creating a circus-like atmosphere.

In his execution of Chopin’s “Polonaise in A-flat” and “Sonata No. 3,” and in Liszt’s “Ballade No. 2,” he consistently used too much sustaining pedal and sped through many passages without exerting any rhythmic control, all of which produced a blurry mess. However, his pedal habit actually worked in his favor in Liszt’s “Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este” by bringing out the dreamy qualities in a work that evokes the fountains on the famous Roman estate. Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 15” was a veritable shipwreck of wrong notes. There, he also revealed the fatal flaw — while he’s adept at blizzards of fast notes, an essential musical principle is missing. That is, managing the way energy flows through every phrase and each section — that energy must be directed linearly like a human breath toward the end, instead of anchoring the pulse in vertical sameness. By doing this, the phrases are shaped with artistic expression. The lack of that principle was also the reason his version of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1” fell to the floor in an exhausted heap.

The circus-like atmosphere returned with his encore: Khachaturian’s famous “Sabre Dance,” which is usually played for death-defying balancing acts in a circus. In Helfgott’s case, especially since he hammered it out erratically at top speed with full-on pedal, it was a defining moment.

Difficult questions

What’s wonderful about David Helfgott: He’s good for the classical music industry, in general terms. It’s very possible that people who have never heard live classical piano music buy tickets to his concerts. Who else, since the late Vladimir Horowitz, sells out concerts in a major hall in a matter of days? And I’m guessing, for the children in the audience, it’s vastly better mental nutrition than the latest disco hit and television commercials.

What’s troubling about David Helfgott: His musicianship lacks the essential ability to shape expressive phrases among the hundreds of notes he tosses off at high speed. His behavior on stage flaunts the propriety of concert convention — which is to serve the music and not the artist — but in his case reveals to what extent his particular illness is actually encouraged to flourish for the purposes of entertainment.

Does this mean that we should judge his performance within the spectrum of autism instead of professionally accepted standards that don’t take into account any kind of disability? If the performer is touted by sponsors and major media as if he actually could meet professional standards, no.

Mei Yi Foo’s Turkish debut at CRR

Pianist Mei Yi Foo’s debut program at Cemal Resit Rey (CRR) Concert Hall on April 16, on paper, looked astonishing. Her blockbuster selections didn’t allow her any respite in, say, a charming little Haydn sonata or a puff piece by Poulenc. She went for the gold: Ravel’s “Ma mère l’Oye” suite, Mikhail Pletnëv’s knuckle-busting arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” Rachmaninoff’s “Corelli Variations,” Glinka’s “The Lark,” and one of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire: Mily Balakirev’s “Islamey.”

It wasn’t a note-perfect performance, but if it had been, I would have suspected her of being a robot. But Ms. Foo more than adequately supplied all the nuanced musicianship and exquisitely shaped phrases that I had sorely missed with Helfgott.

With her sense of timing — when to breathe, when to surge forward, when to pull back to total serenity — and most importantly how to control everything through understanding how energy works to illuminate the musical essence, she created a breathlessly artistic experience. Her encore of Earl Wild’s sublime arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” was delicious icing on a superb cake.

Pianists like Foo (who, by the way, received the 2013 BBC Music Magazine Awards’ Newcomer Award) deserve the kind of media attention, fancy packaging and sponsorship that I witnessed the previous evening.