Magazine article The Spectator

Hungarian Rhapsody

Magazine article The Spectator

Hungarian Rhapsody

Article excerpt

Stories from a Book of Liszts

by John Spurling, read by Jonathan Keeble

and Jilly Bond; piano played by János

Balázs (Chrome Audio, 3CDs, 3hrs 16mins,

£ 17.99,

Time was, or perhaps still is, though my friends long ago learned to behave, that a cutesy gift to musical acquaintances was a long, narrow notepad with the words 'Chopin Liszt' printed at the top and decorated with clefs and notes, free-floating and unplayable without a stave to anchor them.

This witticism relied tenuously on the mispronunciation of Chopin as shoppin' or, though it doesn't quite work for the purpose, choppin'. No doubt many musical folk are delighted to attach these handy smilers to their shoppin' trolleys to prompt them on the grocery trail.

Liszt, at least, is always list, and this is the forgivable wordplay John Spurling, playwright, novelist and critic, uses for the title of his novel The Book of Liszts (Seagull Books, £14), inspired by the Hungarian composer who singlehandedly epitomised the Romantic Age. In a CD note Spurling describes how he suffered a sudden, enduring attack of 'Lisztomania' six years ago after a chance encounter with a recording by the pianist Steven Osborne.

That expression - Lisztomania -was coined by Heinrich Heine as early as December 1841, when Liszt began a tenweek residency in Berlin, playing before the King of Prussia and being heaped with honours. The pianist-composer's fame was at its height. Europe was in his thrall. He, together with his hero, the devilish violinist Paganini, invented the idea of musical celebrity. Aged 30, he was virile and godlike in appearance. Women fainted at the sight of him. His fervour, religiosity and extravagantly chaotic behaviour, forgetting in which drawer he might have hidden his earnings, merely added to his mystique.

Little wonder that his lost manuscripts still turn up in salerooms to this day. …

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