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The sub-title of this remarkable book – musician, celebrity, superstar – at once tells you where author Oliver Liszt was, indeed, all of these things, bewilderingly multi-faceted and of super-human strength and achievement. Yet he also paid a heavy price in his journey from ‘Le petit Litz’ to ‘Le grand Liszt,’ marked by a rapid and increasing contempt for his role as, possibly, the greatest of all pianists, betrayed by those supposedly closest to him (the ‘green-eyed monster’ of jealousy and incomprehension) and final years dogged by ill-health, alcoholism and a despair reflected in music of a dark-hued austerity.

As alfred Brendel put it, his was an odyssey from ‘l’exuberance de coeur’ to ‘l’amertume de coeur.’ Above all else, he fulfilled his father’s prophecy that he would be compromised by a succession of women who clung limpet-like to his outer glamour and charisma, their social rank (one a countess, another a fake countess, another a princess) belying their mediocrity when refracted through the prism of Liszt’s brilliance.

Yet a paradox arises when you consider Liszt’s vanity.’ Stung to the quick by his rejection, his way of ‘moving on’, Marie d’Agoult declared him ‘a Don Juan parvenu’. Yet if both she and Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (‘a monstrum per excessum’) sought to entangle Liszt in their intellectual confusion, they remained forever in love with a figure who, Houdini-like, eluded their clutches.

Liszt’s genuine if passing love for such persons gives you much of his contradictory nature and essence. Simultaneously attracted and repulsed by a life-style that veered recklessly from the active to the contemplative and vice versa, from his knowledge that ‘the world wants rubbish’ to a desire to flaunt his worldly acclaim, he ended his days as little more than an ignominious player in Wagner’s glory, his music widely derided, its true range and quality only recognised long after his death.

Finally, if it is true that a musician’s truest biography lies in his music, Oliver Hilmes’ engrossing study tells you that biographical considerations are essential to an understanding of Liszt’s stature.

BRYCE MORRISON Read the full review on Agora Classica


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