Ian Lake

Pianist and champion of modern composers
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ian Lake was a distinguished pianist, teacher and composer. He was a professor of piano at the Royal College of Music for nearly 30 years, and toured in Britain and abroad as a recitalist and concerto soloist. He was also a champion of modern music and premiered many works written for him by young composers.

Ian Thomson Lake, pianist, composer and teacher: born Quorn, Leicestershire 26 January 1935; Professor of Piano, Royal College of Music 1966-95; married 1967 Jen Lien (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1975), 1982 Barbara Foster (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1996); died London 12 August 2004.

Ian Lake was a distinguished pianist, teacher and composer. He was a professor of piano at the Royal College of Music for nearly 30 years, and toured in Britain and abroad as a recitalist and concerto soloist. He was also a champion of modern music and premiered many works written for him by young composers.

As a solo recitalist, Lake brought a certain freshness of perception to his performances of the great classics - Schubert's Wanderer Fantasie, the Liszt B minor Sonata and Beethoven's Appassionata, among others. His platform manner was economical and strongly focused, never giving way to flamboyant gestures or effects for their own sake. In the early days his playing was distinguished by brilliant articulation and rhythmic drive, later on enriched by increasingly subtle coloration and the intensification of poetic imagery. He brought a keen intellectual and emotional understanding to any given area of the classical, Romantic and contemporary repertoire, but his spirited, witty and impassioned interpretations of Scarlatti, Haydn and Schubert had those special qualities that distinguish the revelatory artist from the merely good pianist.

Lake was born in 1935 in the village of Quorn in Leicestershire; his father ran a shop in nearby Mountsorrel. He was a precocious child who was reading at the age of three and his working-class parents managed to get a scholarship for him to board at Trent College, in Nottingham. His mother worked as a chambermaid to help finance his education. He then did his National Service - during which he played the clarinet and viola in the army band - and went to the Royal College of Music on a scholarship, and studied with Kendall Taylor. He made his London début at the Royal Festival Hall in 1961, playing Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with the Hallé Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. In 1966 he was appointed to a teaching post at the Royal College of Music, a position he held until 1995.

About 45 years ago, as a fellow student at the RCM, I dashed around to the green room of the concert hall to congratulate Ian Lake, who had just given a masterly performance of Rachmaninov's First Piano Concerto. I asked whether, as a fledgling composer, I might write a piece for him, and whether he would at least give it a reading. In his characteristically reserved, somewhat formal manner, he agreed to give my piece a look-over. I wrote a theme and variations; he sight-read it flawlessly and laughed uproariously (to my surprise) at some of my para-quotes from works by Poulenc, Rachmaninov, Hindemith and Britten. Thus began a lifelong musical association.

Lake went on to encourage many other hitherto unknown composers by securing performances of their works in his festival "Music in Our Time" (which ran in London venues from 1960 to 1970), his occasional broadcasts and in his recitals in the Far East. Composers such as Anthony Payne, Martin Dalby, Edwin Roxburgh, Chris Hobbs, Adrian Jack, Paul Patterson, Dave Smith, Michael Finnissey, Duncan Druce, Roger Smalley, Francis Shaw and I can all attest to Lake's caring attitude towards the interpretation of new works.

His first reading would be meticulously accurate, and the ensuing process full of interested attention to details of gesture, colour and mood. Dave Smith remembers re-notating his piece "Rag" in accordance with some improved rhythmic details that Lake intuitively realised in rehearsal; Adrian Jack mentions that Lake took the trouble to re-copy the string parts of his piano trio because the violinist and cellist found the originals hard to read. Over the years I always felt enlightened by Lake's application of pianistic expertise and a certain impish sense of humour in preparing my pieces for performance.

Lake was modest about his own compositions, but actually produced a considerable body of work, mostly piano or chamber music. Much was for private consumption: for instance, he composed a berceuse for the birth of each of his five children and then for a further five grandchildren. He wrote educational pieces for his children, all of whom showed considerable musical talent. He made settings, for speaker and piano, of the fairy tales "Rumpelstiltskin" and "Cinderella" and there are rumours of a funeral march for a pet rabbit. There are also at least five substantial piano sonatas. One can detect a certain stylistic indebtedness to Britten, but this is just one aspect of a colourful and eloquent musical vocabulary.

He was a widely travelled man whose house was filled with mementoes from distant lands to which his tours as an Associated Board examiner had led him. His bookshelves contained evidence of his interest in a broad cross-section of English and European literature. He was a keen gardener since, as a musically precocious schoolboy, he was excused sports in order to save his hands and, instead, detailed to tend the garden.

Ian Lake's later years were clouded by a conviction for sexual offences in 1995. But he continued his concert career. Strongly self-willed and stubborn, he had set himself several demanding tasks in the weeks following the diagnosis of his cancer a few months ago, including the recording, with his son Jeremy, of his own arrangements for cello and piano of pieces by G.I. Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. The recording sessions went well and represent a satisfactory completion of the last project he was able to undertake.

Up to the last days before his death he was determinedly practising, preparing a performance of Beethoven's First Piano Concerto for a concert at St John's, Smith Square, in London to celebrate his 70th birthday in January.

John White