Colin Horsley: Pioneering pianist


Colin Horsley, the New Zealand pianist who made his home in Britain, was first noticed at an end-of-term concert at the Royal College of Music in 1941 when he displayed "almost alarming virtuosity" in a performance of the Saint-Saëns G minor piano concerto. A reviewer wrote: "he can do everything and does it with ease".

By the following August he was appearing at the Proms, playing on the piano Bach's Concerto for Three Harpsichords, BWV 1064, with Joan Baker and Fanny Waterman and Henry Wood conducting. In total there were 21 Proms appearances, including the 1958 and 1960 Last Nights; at the latter he played the Saint-Saëns concerto again. His final Prom was in 1965, when he played the Grieg concerto. Regular BBC studio broadcasts began during the War and Horsley also undertook some tours for CEMA (Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts) in 1945. In November 1946 on the Third Programme he played Alkan's Symphony for solo piano.

In 1947 he embarked on a world tour and before leaving gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall including Schumann's Kreisleriana and Albeniz's Iberia. A slight detachment from the music was detected and the Schumann became "less a series of mood pictures than a series of studies in pianoforte touch, tone and figuration". His playing of the Albeniz "suggested an almost visual rather than an emotional approach to the music": there was depth and brilliance rather than colour and warmth, a result that was unusual but not unpleasing. On his return, however, a certain waywardness, lack of solidity and conviction and rhythmic vagaries were detected. Perhaps he was tired.

His career soon picked up and, along with the staples of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and other Romantic composers, he gave pioneering performances of newer works, such as Lennox Berkeley's Piano Concerto, premiered at the Proms in 1948 with Basil Cameron and the London Symphony Orchestra. The Berkeley initially failed to ignite the critics but Horsley's playing was commended, particularly his ability to find lyricism in essentially percussive music. With the passage of time, perceptions change and, in his study of Berkeley published in 1988, Peter Dickinson regards this concerto as being "at Berkeley's highest level". Ireland, Rawsthorne and Humphrey Searle also entrusted their works to Horsley and as early as 1946 he premiered Searle's First Piano Concerto. His performance (and recording) of Ireland's concerto is regarded as definitive.

He excelled as a chamber musician, and had a genius for ensemble playing, working with Denis Brain, Max Rostal and various quartets, such as the Amadeus and the Griller; with the Aeolian Quartet he performed Vaughan Williams's On Wenlock Edge with the tenor René Soames.

As a soloist he remained faithful to Berkeley, playing and recording his Six Preludes and his Piano Sonata which, although written for Clifford Curzon was, after its premiere, given more performances by Horsley. His recording had the benefit of the composer's close supervision. He commissioned Berkeley's Horn Trio, while the Concerto for Piano and Double String Orchestra was written for him.

He also gave the first performance of his fellow-countryman Douglas Lilburn's Sonatina (1946) at the Wigmore Hall in November 1947 and three years later he played Reger's (then) rarely heard Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Bach, music demanding prodigious virtuosity. Prokofiev, Szymanowski and Medtner (particularly the latter's Third Piano Concerto, which he played in London at Medtner's memorial concert in 1952) were composers who featured in his recital programmes.

In addition to recordings already mentioned, with Max Rostal in 1955 Horsley recorded Delius's Violin Sonata – a performance which in Alec Robertson's view would please those "who dislike the repetitious nature of Delius's chamber music, its incessant flow and lack of contrast and tension": shaping of phrases, the distribution of light and shade, and the capturing of the elusive spirit of the music resulted in an enchanting performance. Two years later came Stravinsky's Duo Concertant, then sonatas by Schubert, Schumann, Debussy, Elgar, Prokofiev and Walton (the latter only five years after its composition) and recordings of solo pieces by Chopin, Liszt, Franck and Rachmaninov.

Horsley retired to the Isle of Man, from where his grandfather had emigrated in 1880 to New Zealand, where Horsley was born to Robert Bramwell and Beatrice Dorothy Horsley, parents whose singing and piano-playing were the background to his childhood.

Colin Robert Horsley, pianist and teacher: born Wanganui, New Zealand 23 April 1920; Professor, Royal College of Music 1953-90, Royal Manchester College of Music 1964-80; OBE 1963; died Strang, Isle of Man 28 July 2012.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album