Geoffrey Tozer: Pianist who played the Proms at 15 and later forged a productive relationship with Chandos Records

Tuesday 06 October 2009 00:00

Geoffrey Tozer's career illustrates the importance that a record label can have for a musician. Having made his mark as a child prodigy, even playing at the Proms at the age of 15, by his early 30s Tozer had taken up teaching to make ends meet. But then an association with the Colchester-based Chandos Records began to make his name known in musical circles all around the world.

Tozer's beginning was as colourful as his choice of repertoire was unusual. He was born in Mussoorie, a hill-station in Himalayan north India, where his musician mother, Veronica, was married to Colonel Donald Tozer, an officer in the British army; his father, though, was Geoffrey Conan-Davies, a one-time colonial administrator in East Africa then an Anglican minister based in Tasmania, with whom his mother had had a fling. Four years after his birth, the Tozers' marriage sundered for good, and his mother settled in Melbourne with Geoffrey and his brother.

Veronica Tozer was a fine pianist, and Geoffrey's first teacher. He made his first public appearance at the age of five, and his concerto debut at eight, when he played Bach's Concerto No. 5 in F minor with the Victorian Symphony Orchestra. The concert was televised across Australia, making him national news.

In Australia, Tozer studied with Eileen Ralf and the composer-pianist Keith Humble. But when he was 13 Sir James Darling, the headmaster of Geelong grammar school, told him: "What you really need to do is read, play the piano and meet famous people. Get out of Australia as fast as you can. Go and grow". Tozer took the advice and went to study with Maria Curcio in London and, later, Theodore Lettvin in New York.

His gifts continued to surprise: one older colleague remembers the 13-year-old boy playing a set of Beethoven variations which he failed to recognise. When questioned, Tozer casually confessed that he had produced them himself: "I like writing like other composers". That compositional impulse surfaced throughout his career in a delight in improvisation, often on a tune suggested by his audience. He especially enjoyed playing to children and would ask them for a song on which he might extemporise.

How much of Tozer's own music still exists is a moot point. Two years ago he mentioned to his fellow Australian pianist Ian Munro that he had just finished another piano sonata. When Munro asked if he could have a copy, he answered: "Oh no. I haven't written it down yet".

The teenage Tozer hit the headlines again and again. At 14 he was the youngest person to win a Churchill Fellowship, which brought him the means to enter the Leeds Piano Competition; there he was the youngest-ever finalist. His Proms appearance – playing Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 15 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Colin Davis – came in 1970; it was also his European debut. Another Churchill Fellowship followed when he was 17.

Tozer crowned these early successes by twice winning a gold medal at the Arthur Rubinstein competition in Israel, in 1977 and 1980, and the medallion of the Liszt competition in Budapest in 1986. But despite the recognition, he found it difficult to make ends meet. He worked as a répétiteur at Glyndebourne and the London Opera Centre and then, in 1981–82, taught at the University of Michigan.

Taking up a teaching job in Canberra was an act of desperation but proved a lucky break: the son of Paul Keating, then Treasurer of Australia, was a pupil of his, and so Tozer's plight came to Keating's attention. The politician said he felt "ashamed" that "Australia's greatest pianist" was having to survive on a salary of A$9,000, and so initiated the Australian Artists Creative Fellowships. In 1989 Tozer thus received two consecutive awards (the first worth A$329,000 over five years), drawing some criticism – from the pianist-composer Larry Sitsky, for example, who, though Tozer was a friend of his, felt it was wrong in principle that the friend of a politician should be so rewarded.

It was nevertheless those awards which launched Tozer's recording career. Once the connection had been made with Chandos, he went on to produce 36 CDs from 1992 onwards. Although Tozer played the standard classics in public (including all 32 Beethoven sonatas in seven concerts over 11 evenings in 1994), he wisely avoided the warhorses on his visits to the recording studios. He made the first recording of Respighi's four piano concertos (with the late Sir Edward Downes and the BBC Philharmonic), the 14 sonatas and three concertos of Nikolai Medtner (with the London Philharmonic and Neeme Järvi), the three Korngold sonatas, the Rawsthorne First and Second Concertos and Concerto for Two Pianos (with the LPO again, this time under the baton of Matthias Bamert), the piano and harpsichord concertos of Roberto Gerhard, and piano music by Grainger, Schnabel, and McEwen, as well as that of Bach-Busoni, Bartók, Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky.

He achieved his biggest audience during one of the tours of China which were a near-annual feature of his life from 1993. In 2001 he became the first westerner to play the "Yellow River" Concerto in public, and the television broadcast attracted an estimated 80 million viewers.

His health was already on the decline by then, and his death, from liver disease, came a week after he was discharged from hospital, to allow him to die in the same Melbourne house he had grown up in.

Tozer wasn't always the most sensitive of pianists: there was sometimes a bluster and swagger to his playing that the uncharitable might characterise as typically Australian. The upside of that same forcefulness was the energy and enthusiasm he brought to everything he played – to everything he did, in fact, belying the gentleness of his own character. Munro recalls that for Tozer:

"Participating in any way was always special for him, whether it be turning someone's pages, giving an inspirational lesson (often for free and for hours) or taking centre stage himself. Above all, he was able to maintain an exquisite innocence."

Norman Lebrecht found "no vanity or falsity to him", adding that he was "the best possible advertisement for his art and his land".

Martin Anderson

Geoffrey Peter Bede Hawshaw Tozer, pianist: born Mussoorie, India 5 November 1954; died Melbourne 21 August 2009.

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