Obituary: Geoffrey Tozer, pianist

admin4th Sep 2009

The Australian pianist, Geoffrey Tozer, has died aged 54. He was best known to the wider musical public for his pioneering recordings of Medtner’s piano music for Chandos, which garnered much international praise including a Diapason d’Or and Grammy nomination for the piano concertos. His recorded repertoire included works by Bartók, Busoni (Australian Soundscapes Record of the Year Prize, 1994), Roberto Gerhard (a Gramophone Critic’s Choice in 1998), Grainger, Korngold, Liszt, McEwen, Rawsthorne, Respighi, Rimsky-Korsakov, Artur Schnabel, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Alexandre Tcherepnin plus an enchanting disc of music for children featuring pieces by Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Schubert and Schumann amongst others.

Tozer made his public debut aged just five years; at eight he took part in a televised concert playing the Bach F minor Concerto. Told by Sir James Darling, chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, to “read, play the piano and meet famous people. Get out of Australia as fast as you can. Go and grow”, he became the youngest Leeds International Competition semi-finalist at 14 and made his Proms debut the following year with Colin Davis in Mozart’s 15th Concerto. Tozer toured widely in Europe, the US and China where in 2001 he became the first Westerner to perform the Yellow River Concerto in public, in a televised relay to an estimated audience of 80 million. Twice the recipient of the Churchill Fellowship (1968; 1973), Tozer won many awards, not least the Rubenstein Gold Medal (1980) and Liszt Centenary Medallion (1986). In 1994, he joined an elite band of pianists to perform all 32 Beethoven sonatas live. An inspired improviser from a young age, he often concluded recitals with extemporisations on themes and styles requested by his audiences.

Geoffrey Peter Bede Hawshaw Tozer was born in Mussoorie in India, moving to Australia with his mother in 1959. His teachers included former Schnabel pupil Maria Curcio and Theodore Lettvin. His major breakthrough resulted from his post at Canberra’s School of Music where one of his pupils was Peter Keating, son of the future Australian Prime Minister who was scandalised that Australia’s leading pianist lived on a paltry salary. In 1989 Tozer received the first of two Australian Artists Creative Fellowship Grants (the second controversially), worth over A$500,000, and Keating personally brought Tozer to the attention of Brian Couzens at Chandos. Tozer later resumed teaching at the Australian National Academy of Music and the University of Melbourne, where he was made a Fellow in 1998. Tozer also edited Medtner’s piano sonatas for publication and created the vocal score of Minoru Miki’s opera An Actor’s Revenge.

In 1996-7, Tozer’s mother as well as his manager, Reuben Fineburg, both died, blows from which he never really recovered. His death in Melbourne, from liver failure, was described by Keating as “a national tragedy” and by composer Peter Sculthorpe, who knew him for many years, “an enormous loss”. Tozer never married.

Guy Rickards

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