Obituary: Peter Katin, pianist

Outstanding pianist who performed several times with the Scottish National Orchestra. Picture: TSPL
Outstanding pianist who performed several times with the Scottish National Orchestra. Picture: TSPL
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BORN: 14 November, 1930, in London. Died: 19 March, 2015, in Sussex, aged 84.

The pianist Peter Katin displayed an impressive musical talent from an early age and became an international star of the concert platform in his teens. At the age of 23 he made his debut at the Proms, giving a virtuoso account of the fiendishly difficult Third Piano Concerto of Rachmaninov – the Prommers greeted the young prodigy with prolonged applause.

Katin’s playing in the concert hall, and on record, of the great piano concertos are acknowledged as being among the finest and are still regularly singled out for praise. In the 1950s he concentrated on performing the romantic piano repertoire and gave memorable accounts of the Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and the Litolff concertos. He then altered his repertoire to develop his love of Chopin and Liszt. Katin was one of the great artists of the keyboard, an exceptional musician with a virtuoso technique.

Katin was a regular visitor to Scotland and a popular soloist with the Scottish National Orchestra (SNO), making his debut with them in 1955 playing the 3rd Beethoven Concerto under Alexander Gibson.

He appeared with the SNO virtually every year until 1974, returning less frequently throughout that decade. His final appearance with the SNO was in 1993, playing a memorable account of Chopin’s first concerto. Most of his concerts with the SNO were under Gibson and displayed Katin’s mastery of the classical repertory including Beethoven, Rachmaninov and Mozart.

Katin joined the SNO, under Gibson, in a thrilling recording of Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals.

He only came to one Edinburgh Festival. In 1971 he joined the soprano Mattiwilda Dobbs and the pianist Peter Gellhorn for “a brilliant” morning concert devoted to “Sir Walter Scott in music”.

Peter Roy Katin was the younger son of an Orthodox Jew from Lithuania while his mother was a Christian. Katin was brought up in Surrey and showed a prodigious talent for music from the age of four and began piano lessons at six. At 12 he was admitted to London’s Royal Academy of Music (four years before the official entry age) and was also head chorister at Westminster Abbey.

There is a grainy Pathé News film clip introduced by Jean Metcalfe (better known as the presenter of the Light Programme’s Two Way Family Favourites) in which Katin, aged 14, plays a challenging solo piano piece he himself had composed.

Katin studied assiduously and attended the concerts given by the great practitioners of the instrument – he admitted he “learnt more in an afternoon” listening to Clifford Curzon “than in five years at the Academy”.

But he avoided competitions; Katin, throughout his life, was a delightful and modest man who eschewed publicity. This relaxed and charmingly down-to-earth attitude to performing was witnessed in Nairobi when a piano pedal stuck during a recital. Undaunted, Katin asked if anyone had a screwdriver on their person and promptly mended the pedal. He continued the concert to resounding applause.

He made his professional debut at the Wigmore Hall in 1948 and after the Proms appearance he was in demand worldwide – in 1958 he was the first post-war British pianist to do a solo tour of the USSR with concerts in Moscow.

He was constantly in demand for these taxing concertos until the late 1960s and it was then that he decided that he wanted to expand his repertoire and study the music of Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Debussy and Liszt. He gained international acclaim for his interpretations on record and live in concert of Chopin. Katin became fascinated in period pianos and made an exceptional recording on a Broadway Grand that the composer himself had played on his farewell concert in London.

To all his interpretations of Chopin Katin brought a deep love of the music with clarity and an outstanding lucidity.

Katin visited the recording studio throughout his career. Apart from Chopin he famously recorded all the Haydn and Mozart sonatas as well as the major concertos of Beethoven, Brahms, Greig and others. He also committed to disc a fine account of the lesser known Khachaturian concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra.

In 1974 he was scheduled to give a concert in Tunbridge Wells in aid of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality but the local council refused to allow the event to go ahead. Katin was generous with his time for various charities and gave 14 recitals in aid of the UK charity connected with the Chernobyl Children’s Project.

Katin taught at the University of Western Ontario in Canada before returning to the UK in 1984 and then was appointed a professor at the Royal College of Music from 1992–2001.

Peter Katin married Eva Zweig, a fellow pianist, in 1954. After a long separation they divorced in 1988. He is survived by their two sons.