Obituary: Colin Horsley, pianist

Charlotte Smith7th Aug 2012
New-Zealand-born pianist Colin Horsley died on July 28 (photo: Tully Potter CollNew-Zealand-born pianist Colin Horsley died on July 28 (photo: Tully Potter Collection)

The New Zealand-born pianist was among the last links to the era of British music-making dominated by Sir Henry Wood. From his birthplace of Wanganui, he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music aged 18. His teachers included the Busoni pupil Herbert Fryer, Angus Morrison, Tobias Matthay and Irene Scharrer.

Horsley made his Proms debut in 1940 in the Bach D minor Triple Concerto, BWV 1063 (with Raymond O’Connell and Cyril Preedy) conducted by Sir Henry, who invited him back two years later to be joined in Bach’s C major Triple Concerto, BWV 1064 by Joan Baker and (Dame) Fanny Waterman. Until his last in 1964, there were only three Prom seasons after 1948 in which Horsley did not feature at least once, a remarkable tally that included two Last Nights and one which indicates the esteem in which he was held during this period. He was awarded the OBE in 1963.

The least flamboyant of virtuosi, Horsley’s qualities were routinely described as ‘refined’, ‘nuanced’, ‘sensitive’, ‘polished’ and, occasionally, ‘reticent’. The 1950s and ‘60s were his heyday. As a friend of Medtner, he gave the first performance of the (indisposed) composer’s Piano Quintet and was asked by his widow to be the soloist in the Piano Concerto No 3 at Medtner’s memorial concert in the Albert Hall. 

Many of Horsley’s recordings for various labels have found their way onto CD including the numerous piano and chamber works which Sir Lennox Berkeley composed for him, among them the Horn Trio (with Dennis Brain and Manoug Parikian); and a classic 1954 disc of violin sonatas by Elgar, Delius and Walton (now on Testament SBT1319) with Max Rostal (a musical partnership that lasted over 25 years). Mozart’s Quintet for piano and winds, K452 - Horsley with the Dennis Brain Wind Ensemble - is on EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century. His account of Ireland’s Piano Concerto (its first LP recording) is on the same label. A disc of his early solo recordings, including 78s of Liszt, Rachmaninov, Szymanowski and Prokofiev, is shortly to be released on the New Zealand Atoll label.

Horsley’s public profile as a soloist slipped from view over the following decades but he taught at the then Royal Manchester College of Music from 1964 to 1980 and at the RCM from 1955 to 1990. His grandfather, who was born in 1854, came from the Isle of Man, and it was to the birthplace of his ancestor that the pianist retired in 1992. Colin Horsley died there on July 28. He was unmarried.

Jeremy Nicholas

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