Pianists from the Past: Lamar Crowson

I hope you continue to be safe and well during this difficult period. It’s time for a guest feature article. My Pianists from the Past series is proving popular, and today’s post has been penned by British pianist Julian Jacobson,  who is professor of piano at the Royal College of Music (in London, UK) and at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (in Birmingham, UK).

Julian’s chosen pianist is American pianist and pedagogue Lamar Crowson, with whom he had a personal connection. Over to Julian…


Lamar Crowson

It is perhaps the inevitable fate of a pianist who devotes himself or herself largely to chamber music and duo playing to be largely forgotten after their death. Who now remembers the magnificent Vladimir Yampolsky, who partnered David Oistrakh in some of the finest of all recordings of the violin and piano (or piano and violin!) repertoire? Only when the pianist has a primary career as a great soloist, composer or both – Rachmaninoff with Kreisler, Bartók with Szigeti, or indeed Richter with Oistrakh – is it remembered that they were also great chamber music pianists.

And so the once ubiquitous name – in England at least – of the American pianist Lamar Crowson has now largely faded from view and many young pianists have never even heard of him. Yet the list of artists with whom he worked from the 1950s to the 1980s reads almost like a who’s who of classical music in England, with not a few international celebrities to add lustre: Jacqueline du Pré, Janet Baker, Itzhak Perlman, Pierre Fournier, Ruggiero Ricci, Uto Ughi (with whom he recorded the ten Beethoven Violin Sonatas), Dennis Brain, Tasmin Little, the Amadeus Quartet to name just a handful, as well as being the pianist of the UK’s most distinguished mixed chamber group the Melos Ensemble and the Pro Arte Piano Quartet. Emanuel Hurwitz, the Melos’s leader, put it thus: “When you walk on to a platform with someone of his artistic integrity, you feel nothing but total confidence”. And I would highlight the words “artistic integrity” as a characterisation of his entire career and persona.

Nor was he only a chamber musician. Proms records for the late 1950s and early 1960s show him as soloist for Brahms 2nd Concerto, Beethoven’s “Emperor” and Rachmaninov’s 4th. However – following an unfortunate early incident – he elected not to play again from memory: in those days using the score was even less accepted by the public than it is now, especially for a young pianist, and this may have restricted his solo career. He was also on record as saying that he found the life of a soloist “bare and lonely”: a jovial, gregarious, extravert man, he no doubt found out early enough – as did Menahem Pressler – that he preferred to make music with others and found sufficient fulfilment in ensemble playing.  For Alfred Brendel, who was instrumental in placing an article on him in Grove’s Dictionary, he was simply “one of the finest chamber music pianists of our day”.

Born in Florida in 1926, Crowson, after a liberal arts education, had come to London in 1948 to study at the Royal College of Music with Arthur Benjamin, who was then teaching piano rather than composition. As a small boy in the mid-fifties I was taken to play to Benjamin with the idea that he might teach me: he exclaimed that he didn’t have the patience to undo all my no doubt excruciating bad habits and passed me on to Lamar, while taking me for theory and composition. This was my immense good fortune as Lamar gave me the most solid grounding I could have had: this lasted till I was 12 by which time he had become too busy with his concerts and, from 1957, his own class at the RCM. My time as a senior student at the RCM coincided with his first extended stay in South Africa where he eventually settled, so I had no more lessons with him.

After what was a considerable break, I did not hear him again till 1968 or 1969 by which time I was an Oxford undergraduate. The Melos Ensemble came to give a marvellous programme that opened with the Beethoven Piano and Wind Quintet. After the stately, formal opening there is a point where the piano takes a more assertive role. I have never forgotten the thrill of Lamar’s entry at this point, the feeling of intellectual strength married to complete pianistic authority. From this time on I made a point of going to hear him whenever I could. On another occasion, at the Wigmore Hall with the violinist Sylvia Rosenberg, I asked him afterwards how he managed to get such wonderfully delicate running left hand quavers in the late Mozart A major Sonata: he bent over to me (he was a tall man) and said self-deprecatingly “Old age!” His mastery came without the slightest pomposity, yet he knew his worth. Discussing him somewhat later with a violinist who I won’t name, the violinist said “yes a fine pianist but a strange man”: after a piano trio concert where, presumably, the string players had not performed at their best, Lamar said to them “Well, I played well anyway”. And doubtless this was the case as I never heard him play less than superbly.

He also knew and insisted on the equal role of the pianist in duo playing, at a time when the pianist was still often relegated to the status of “the accompanist”.  When Pierre Fournier was due to tour South Africa with him, he heard that Lamar always insisted on having the lid fully open and approached this with some trepidation having always played with the piano on the short stick; in the event he was totally won over, with Lamar’s fine ear for balance and absolute understanding of the musical line as shared by the two instruments making any balance problems vanish. A fine Deutsche Grammophon recording of Schumann with Fournier is eloquent testimony to all his qualities, and the piano playing has a warmth that he is not always given credit for (see link below).

His one regret at moving to South Africa and having to severely restrict his international touring was that just before his departure Itzhak Perlman had asked him to become his regular partner for duo concerts. Nevertheless in South Africa, where he settled in 1972, he acquired a celebrity status which he enjoyed, becoming in 1980 Professor at the University of Cape Town, which awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in 1996. He also found personal happiness in a third marriage, though as this was to a scion of one the leading South African political  families this raised some eyebrows among some of his more liberal-minded students.

He continued to visit Europe annually, giving masterclasses at Dartington, Britten-Pears Academy and elsewhere and appearing at the International Musicians’ Seminar, Prussia Cove (where I once persuaded him to play part of the “Rite of Spring” duet version with me). I met him in two successive years in the 1990s at Dartington: the first year he was the picture of health and bonhomie, the second year he looked considerably less robust and spoke openly about realising he needed to curtail his activities. His final years were increasingly centred in South Africa as one of their most prominent and revered musicians.

How was it to perform with Lamar? Tasmin Little has generously shared her memories of playing with him in South Africa in the 90s, calling it an “absolute joy”, with a feeling of wonderful rapport. She treasured him as a spontaneous musician, not wanting to give the same performance every time, and relished his immense poetry and beautiful phrasing in more thoughtful passages. She also enjoyed his charming manner and “wicked sense of humour”. Clearly touring with Lamar was fun, and he knew how to give his partners a sense of liberation as well as total security.

There are many examples of his ensemble playing available on YouTube and recordings, mainly transferred from LP, that can be bought online. Of his solo playing there is less available: nevertheless I would point the reader to the recordings of his teacher Arthur Benjamin’s music (see link above), both solo and with orchestra (LSO), and his double CD of sonatas by Clementi (linked below), which I remember him furiously reading (he was a fabulous sight reader) before a couple of my lessons. These particularly display his brand of “intellectual passion”, logical, strongly formed yet also warmly personal and communicative. It’s a pity that, as far as I know, he didn’t record the 12 Studies by Peter Racine Fricker which are dedicated to him and which he premiered at the 1961 Cheltenham Festival: he never thought of himself as a contemporary specialist, but there is no doubt that he brought his special brand of penetrating intellect to bear on any new music that came his way.

And as a teacher? I well remember the infinite patience with which he taught me, aged 8, the “down-up” movement, releasing the second note of a two-note slur with an upward motion of the wrist. This took several lessons. Also listening to the decay of a long forte note and being able to match its tonal strength when he asked me to play a new note. He gave me, at a very young age, Debussy, Bartók and Kabalevsky at a time when most children in 1950s provincial England were restricted to the schoolroom classics. His later roster of students speaks for itself: Clifford Benson, Ian Brown, Gwenneth Pryor, Howard Shelley, Jan Latham-Koenig, Niel Immelman and, from the 1980s, most of the important South African pianists, particularly Steven De Groote whose early death in 1989 must have come as a severe blow to him.

Let Howard Shelley have the last word:

“As a teacher, he was one of that rare breed who is able to adapt to each student’s personality, drawing out the very best. The antithesis of the typical music professor, he was lively, modern and dynamic in appearance and approach. He was usually dressed in denims and cowboy boots, and his trademark was a distinctive pipe through which he puffed aromatic smoke as he expounded his fascinating and individual theories on music, the piano and performing.  His refined fingers produced a unique luminosity and expressiveness, even in the softest pianissimo.”

Independent, 10 September 1998.

John Lamar Crowson, born Tampa Florida 27 May 1926, died Johannesburg 25 August 1998.

Julian Jacobson
Image credit: Roger Harris

Julian Jacobson

You can read the other articles in this series by clicking here.


My publications:

For much more information about how to practice piano repertoire, take a look at my piano course, Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). Covering a huge array of styles and genres, the course features a large collection of progressive, graded piano repertoire from approximately Grade 1 to advanced diploma level, with copious practice tips for every piece. A convenient and beneficial course for students of any age, with or without a teacher, and it can also be used alongside piano examination syllabuses too.

You can find out more about my other piano publications and compositions here.


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