Geoffrey Parsons : OBITUARIES
Saturday 28 January 1995
Part of his success was in the meticulous preparation he brought to his programmes, whether with singers of renown or with those still on the way up. For his first concert with Schwarzkopf at the invitation of Walter Legge in 1961 they did seven three-hour rehearsals, an investment of time and patience which brought Parsons continuing work with one of the most exacting of singers. Legge was always present at their rehearsals, which "couldn't have been more searching, more probing", Parsons once said, "always trying to find out why that particular bar or phrase or piece was written as it was".
He wrote that the art of the accompanist lay in being "adaptable to an almost infinite extent"; but without losing sight of his convictions about the musical qualities involved, and his duty to the poet as well as the composer - while simultaneously respecting the viewpoint of the singer, whether as rehearsed or, sometimes, "spontaneously inspired at the moment of performance". His ideal was to produce a cushion of basically rich sound, "on which the singer feels supported and borne along in utter safety".
Parsons was an Australian born in Sydney, where he studied at the Conservatory and was encouraged in thoughts of accompanying by Vern Barnett, a family friend who was also the leading accompanist there at the time. A trial tour in Australia with a singerin 1948 seemed to work out well, and brought him into contact with the ballad-singer Peter Dawson, with whom he toured Australia and New Zealand the next year.
Dawson invited him to further tours in Canada on his way to Britain, and although the Canadian dates fell through Parsons spent his last £60 on a passage to England to join up with Dawson again.
However, they had only six concerts together in Britain and then Parsons found himself without work or prospects. He knew only some acquaintances of Dawson in the variety world and to get work, he once recalled, "I kept going along to the piers and beingaccompanist for mouth organs, the bones, a piano accordion, jew's harp; I really did play for the lot."
His main break he ascribed to luck and being in the right place at the right time when Gerald Moore was unavailable to play for Gerhard Husch, the eminent lieder singer, when he returned in 1955 for his first London concert since the war. It worked so well that Husch asked Parsons to be his permanent accompanist during what little career still remained to him, but more valuable still was the chance to go to Munich and work with the baritone on a daily basis. They worked virtually all day, according to Parsons, "the best possible school . . . that I could have had", which he was able to put to good use as more engagements with other artists came his way.
He did not confine himself to singers, working also with such violinists as Ida Haendel, Nathan Milstein and Wanda Wilkomirska, and with the cellist Paul Tortelier. It was all part of what Parsons called "a life of unceasing and stimulating challenge", but it was usually the singers who drew the most responsive support from him. For them he acquired a huge repertory, being expected to know, as he put it, all the standard classics and most of the unusual ones, "in keys not only high, low or medium, but also appropriately higher, lower or more medium, printed or not".
As he remarked, audiences do not usually know the original key of a song, and he was always anxious they should never be aware of which key is more playable than another, however awkward the need for transposition can make it. His skill was just as much in the range of tonal colour he could command, not just as variety for its own sake but to set a mood and atmosphere by imaginative response to the music often long before the singer enters, and then to maintain as fine a balance as possible so as to enhance but never obscure the voice. Several of his precepts he was able to demonstrate in a notable series of televised Master Classes.
Parsons and I once found ourselves neighbours on holiday on Menorca, in villas loaned by Swedish singers, his from the tenor Nicolai Gedda, whom he often accompanied, mine from the mezzo Kerstin Meyer, whom I wish he could have accompanied. Over meals and conversation I found Geoffrey among the most good-natured and generous of artists, even to a critic like myself, and there will be widespread sorrow that his career has been ended so soon. His many discs will remain a living testament to his artistry.
n Geoffrey Penwill Parsons, pianist: born Sydney, Australia 15 June 1929; OBE 1977; AO 1990; died London 26 January 1995.
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