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Peter Katin 1930-2015

A tribute by Stephen Beville



Remembering the Magic of Peter Katin (1930-2015)

Peter Katin


The pianist and composer Stephen Beville recalls his encounters with his former piano teacher, one of Britain's finest concert pianists whose musical career spanned over sixty years.

I first came across the name of Peter Katin while still very young. He was one of the first British pianists (along with S. Bishop-Kovacevich) whose recordings became known to me from local stores and music shops. (I might add that this was at a time when the audio-cassette was the primary medium of dissemination). 'The magic piano of Peter Katin' and his recording of Grieg's Piano Concerto performed with Sir John Prichard and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (coupled with the Peer Gynt Suite) were among the most treasured additions to my early classical music collection. (In fact on a number of occasions his recordings have inspired me to take up new repertoire; Liszt's Liebestraum No 3 and the Vallée d'Obermann , and most recently the four Impromptus of Chopin). Little did I know then that Peter was to become an important figure in my own musical life.

So it was in 1994 when I was finishing my studies at the Junior Academy (Royal Academy of Music) that I finally met Peter in London at the residence of one of my father's customers. (My father Mike Beville, a recording engineer, was at that time working in the industry of designing music-editing technology and equipment). As Peter had never heard me play, to begin with, he was most interested in me as a composer. I distinctly recall his positive reaction on hearing a recording of a song-cycle I composed at the age of 15; "absolutely marvellous" was his verdict. He was also good enough to attend a composition workshop organised by the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) at St Giles Cripplegate Church, The Barbican at which my Chamber Concerto was performed conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Since we had become acquainted I made a point of attending some of Peter's recitals at the Wigmore Hall and the Southbank Centre. Although a little shy, Peter always seemed to be welcoming and good-natured towards me - especially backstage in the green room after an enchanting performance.

When I started at University in 1995 and I needed a vastly experienced piano teacher to take me to professional level, I asked Peter and he happily obliged and accepted me as a private student. I progressed well under his guidance and he was enthusiastic enough to fax highly complimentary 'reports' to my father. Later when I studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and thereafter in Karlsruhe, Germany, we still kept in touch and I would continue to have lessons with him from time to time. I last met Peter in 2005 at his home in Bexhill-on-Sea where we listened to some recordings of live performances I gave in Germany (later released as 'Stephen Beville in Karlsruhe ' on the Divine Art Label). He later wrote to me how impressed he was by my musical insights .....' You are a natural musician and I have always admired things in your playing and compositions'. As it happens we had arranged to meet again this year when I heard the sad news that he had passed away.

Peter will perhaps be best remembered for his wondrous interpretations of the music of Chopin - the composer with whom he felt the most affinity. As I recall, on his teaching room wall, there was proudly displayed a certificate of distinction from the Chopin Institute in Warsaw. Generally he seems to have preferred the Paderewski editions to the Henle; I still have a copy of his conductor's score of the F minor Concerto (one of the works I studied) - complete with his extra dynamic indications and hairpin expressions to the orchestral parts (added from years of experience playing with orchestras and experimentation in acoustic balance). No doubt he would have used this copy to direct from the keyboard. On numerous occasions he showed me facsimile copies of the composer's authentic hand-written manuscripts that greatly interested me; there were abundant crossings out, and if his signature was anything to go by, Chopin possessed a fine quill! From Peter, I learned to love and appreciate Chopin's music - (among the first pieces I studied with him was the Scherzo No 4 in E - also issued on my recording). My own composition The Echoing Sky (2001) for piano (with or without electronics) was inspired by Peter' playing of Chopin and is dedicated to him.

The music of Chopin certainly figured in Peter's sensational debut (at the age of 17) at the Wigmore Hall (1947), one that launched him to fame; an event perhaps unthinkable today without the trappings of wealthy, high-powered agencies and advertising. (Peter emanated from a time when it was still possible to establish a successful solo career without winning a major competition - and like myself, he seems to have regarded the pressures of competition as adverse to the true nature of music as an art form ). Following the aftermath of that initial success, he embarked upon a distinguished musical career that would span a period of sixty or so years at the highest level. Few modern pianists strove to sustain such longevity - rather like the prolonged (but on the piano, theoretically impossible) legato lines he craved from his performances of the Nocturnes . Few modern pianists witnessed such changes to the musical landscape, some of which he did not approve. From the LP era through to the advent of the audio-cassette and later CDs and DVDs, he experienced first-hand the transformative effects technology had not just on the classical music recording industry but on live performance, concert life and the very fabric of its infrastructure; its music management, media marketing, promotion and reviews.

True, after his return from an autumnal-career move to Ontario (Canada) in 1983, he fell out with much of the UK musical establishment and became increasingly at odds with a critical media and promotional 'apparatus' that tended to regard music as a mere 'business' (as he often told me). (He bemoaned the increasing use of pictorials and advertising in the Gramophone for example). However, Peter was surely spot on when he declared that 'the mafia now calling the shots derives its power not from musical expertise but from money'......He was, sometimes, a difficult man (although never a bully) but ultimately one of great artistic and human integrity and wisdom - qualities not so readily ascertained or appreciated today. We should recall that Peter was one of the last links with the pre-technocratic (so-called) 'golden age' of pianists and musicians when music and musicality were foremost factors. Here was someone who had performed concertos with the likes of Sir Adrian Boult and Kirill Kondrashin (Peter was reputedly one of the first British pianists to tour the Soviet Union)....someone who had known Britten, Pears and Arrau. He fondly recalled to me a bygone era when you could hear Schnabel, Myra Hess, Arrau, Curzon and Rubinstein all live in one season.

Some critics and commentators felt that his powers declined in later life; but if so that decline should not be delineated too soon. I still recollect a sublime rendition Peter gave of the Chopin B minor sonata at the QEH in 1995; in fact it remains the best live performance of that work I've heard to date. Above all he maintained his clarity of vision and musical commitment to the end. The musicality and intention were always there, even if during the twilight years the practical realisation sometimes went astray.

Not like every pianist, Peter had that most important of gifts, the gift to truly communicate with his audience. I like to think that it was not so much pianism per se that interested him - although he clearly possessed great agility and an often beautiful sensibility to sound - but music. (Perhaps not unrelated to this, he warned me against the Kammerling 'type-writer' school of pianism when I went to Germany. Peter always stressed the importance of finding original fingerings for difficult passagework not merely because it was the most 'comfortable' and convincing technically but because it made the most musical sense). I remember him recounting the famous remark Leschetizky said of Schnabel; "You are not a pianist, you are a musician!".

Perhaps it was his early experience as a composer (there is a 1940s Pathé newsreel footage that shows the young 14 year-old prodigy playing his own accomplished composition*) that marked Peter out as a true musician - as he really understood music as a creative process. Rather like myself, he wanted to understand the composer's social and inner world, to find those correspondences between the musical and the 'extra-musical' in order to express communicative (social) meaning. I suppose that is called interpretive insight ..... In repertoire such as Grieg, Chopin and Liszt he was a master at the intimate - in drawing his listeners into the composer's secret poetic world or holding them spellbound as if by magic. In this respect he reminded me of a wordless magician conjuring the unreal, miraculous from his box of tricks, the piano.

His is a sad loss to the musical world. He was one of Britain's finest pianists and an inspiring musician and teacher. He will be greatly missed. Are we really able to imagine piano music without the magic of Peter Katin?

(*Pathé Newsreel; please see Obituary in the Daily Telegraph )
© April, 2015.