Five years ago today the brilliant and woefully underrated pianist Geoffrey Tozer passed away. Around every time this year I re-read Stuart Rintoul’s heart-rending obituary for Tozer in The Australian.
This was a man who played Bach’s Concerto in F Minor with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the age of nine, but who died virtually penniless; a man who played The Yellow River Concerto eight years ago in a televised concert seen by 80 million people in China, but who was not playing in his own country; a man who loved both women and men and yet was tortured by his inability to find an enduring happiness.
I first discovered Tozer while working at my high school’s music library. After filing away a Mahler score I was intrigued by during my shift, I went to the main library (the music library was in the music building) to pick up the CD of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. There, tucked neatly in alphabetical order between Mahler and Mozart, I spotted another CD that caught my eye: The Piano Works of Nikolai Medtner, Volume 4, performed by Geoffrey Tozer, for Chandos Records.
Chandos is a fascinating company that specializes in lesser known composers. Tozer’s fate was to devote some of his best work to recording Medtner, the relatively unknown contemporary and friend of Rachmaninoff. I imagine Tozer’s goal was to bring more attention to Medtner’s work. Despite critical acclaim, his efforts seem to have only garnered the reward of mutual obscurity for them both.
Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered a eulogy for Tozer in which he lambasted the Australian art world’s neglect of Tozer:
Their indifference and contempt towards him left him to moulder away largely playing to himself in a rented suburban Melbourne house. The people who chose repertoire for those two orchestras and who had charge in the selection of artists during this period should hang their heads in shame at their neglect of him.
This despite Tozer’s remarkable talent. Rintoul writes:
As a pianist, Tozer could mimic one composer with the left hand and another with his right hand simultaneously. He would entertain audiences playing Bach as Beethoven, or Schubert as Mozart, but his whole life was music. Financial statements befuddled him, he never could learn to drive a car and, according to his brother, he could no more hammer a nail than fly to the moon.
Nonetheless, I pulled that Medtner-Tozer CD off the shelf in high school right at the time I was writing a paper on Hamlet for English class. I had opted to write on Ophelia and the question of whether she has any agency in the face of tragic fate. As another form of fate would have it, “Ophelia’s Song” was one of the recordings on that album. I played that four-minute long sonata on repeat for hours upon hours while writing that essay.
To my ear, Medtner’s music is unique for somehow simultaneously being more rigid to form than Rachmaninoff’s but also much more emotive. That perception is likely colored by Tozer’s expressive playing.
If you can, take the time today to listen to some of Tozer’s Medtner recordings.
Medtner’s First Piano Concerto is probably the easiest place to start.
The “Forgotten Melodies” are some of Medtner’s most hauntingly beautiful works.
I hope this music has as much of an effect on you as it has on me.