Franz Liszt, born 200 years ago, was a phenomenal child-prodigy and the greatest pianist of his day.
He had innumerable affairs and assorted children (one of whom married Wagner), and he ended his days as a priest. Two new audiobooks attempt to do him justice, each featuring lashings of his fabulous music. John Spurling's Stories from a Book of Liszts (Chrome Audio, 3CDs, £17.99) is the more flamboyant. Fifteen dramatic moments comprise the original book, of which four humdingers are performed here, with exuberant panache, by Jonathan Keeble and Jilly Bond. It is highly entertaining, and a glorious bonus is that one of the CDs is an uninterrupted concert of the maestro's music, played by the young, astoundingly brilliant Hungarian pianist Jànos Balász: Liszt reborn.
Jeremy Siepmann's The Life and Works of Franz Liszt (Naxos, 2CDs, £10.99) is a shorter, more scholarly production, full of facts, and with a variety of fine musical excerpts. It probably tells us most of what we need to know, with the slightly solemn air of a learned lecture – but then, it's read by its author, which is always a risk. Unless that author happens to be a fine actress such as Isla Blair. Her autobiography, Tiger's Wedding: My Childhood in Exile (Creative Content Ltd, audio download, nine hours, £16.99), is primarily a moving account of growing up on an idyllic Indian tea plantation, and the pain of being sent, at five, to a dire Scottish boarding school. It contains a paean to the glories of tea, and its many, often surprising, uses.
Michael Kitchen, another superb actor, is a perfect match for the sympathetic, lugubrious character of Aurelio Zen in the late, lamented Michael Dibdin's A Long Finish (BBC, 8CDs, £20.40). The sixth of Dibdin's Zen stories, this concerns the death of an Italian wine producer, some dirty truffle trading and the discovery of – possibly – Zen's daughter, Carla. It is distinguished by Dibdin's clever plotting and evocative writing: "The sky was a dreamy pink, like sunlight filtered through a baby's ear". A joy from start to, well, the long finish.
James Hadley Chase's classic 1939 gangster thriller No Orchids for Miss Blandish (CSA, 6CDs, £22) is something else. No dreamy pinks in this: it's all blood-red. Jeff Harding reads on with grim determination as the beauteous Miss B is subjected to kidnapping, torture and worse by the Grissom gang. The alarming, unremitting violence is only made bearable by hypnotically devilish plotting and by a remoteness from any kind of reality. One hopes.
Similarly gruesome, at first sight, is the concept behind Dan Rhodes's novel Little Hands Clapping (Audible, six hours, £21.42). Read by the excellent Kris Dyer, it is set in a German museum curated by an old, spider-eating man dedicated to the prevention of suicide by the dubious means of displaying various methods by which it has been achieved. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, it has the opposite effect: every week or two the display noose is used and must, wearily, be replaced. This dark and curious fable is leavened by preposterous imagination and an airy wit. You may well, embarrassingly, laugh aloud.
Finally, in Paul Torday's latest novel, More Than You Can Say (Orion, 7CDs, £19) a hopeless man accepts a late-night wager to walk from London to Oxford in time for lunch. On the way, he is kidnapped – and a story is spun that Buchan would have killed for. The deeper sub-text is to do with trust, love and the often hidden effects of war. Jonathan Keeble's reading simply forbids you to press pause.
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