Classical: Sight Readings: Katin takes care of business

A maestro mourns the power of money, while Rimsky-Korsakov offers some consolation
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The Independent Culture
ON 13 DECEMBER, 1948, an 18-year-old boy gave a Wigmore recital which The Daily Telegraph hailed with decorous rapture: "Everything he did had a certain distinction. His Scarlatti was unhurried, discreet, and intimate, and in Mozart and Beethoven his tone often had a great loveliness."

On Sunday - 50 years to the day since that debut - Peter Katin will again play at the Wigmore, and with a very similar programme. A triumphant occasion? Of course, but also an uneasy one. For Katin fears that this concert may be his farewell: his 1999 diary is a barren landscape.

This sounds odd, coming from the man who only last week was Joan Bakewell's guest on Radio 3, whose records have consistently exhibited those qualities first identified in 1948, and whose reviews still routinely glow.

How can an artist of such calibre come to such an unhappy pass? The answer, says Katin, is commercialism. "When your work dries up, you start getting panic attacks. If I thought there had been a falling-off in my playing, I'd call it a day, but I don't think it is falling off. There was always a mafia running the music world, and when I started my career, that mafia was musical. The mafia now calling the shots derives its power not from musical expertise, but from money. I'm not alone in thinking this."

It's perhaps significant that what was once called the music world is now known as the music business: watching the most heavily promoted names hogging the publicity and notching up commensurate fees, you take Katin's point.

"Almost all the pianists playing at the Festival Hall charge around pounds 7,000, whereas my fee is pounds 2,000. Being cheap has become a stigma."

His bitterness is not directed at other pianists - he happily lists the up-and-coming players he admires - but he does deplore the way the art itself has changed. "If Fischer, Cortot, Gieseking, Rubinstein and Solomon were to figure in one season - as they regularly used to - people would be astonished at their diversity. Players are now enormously efficient, but they all tend to resemble each other, as do the orchestras. In the old days, you knew instantly if you were listening to a Russian one, or an American one, or an English one. Now you get this even, international sound."

If Katin comes across as an edgy misfit, that's only the downside to the integrity you sense when you track him to his lair in a modest Croydon side-street. The books and pictures indicate wide-ranging interests, but everything else suggests the rigorous pursuit of timeless pianistic goals.

The Steinway dates from 1900, and the Collard fortepiano, on which he records Chopin, from the 1830s.

His life story reflects a similar rigour. The son of a Lithuanian-Jewish sign-painter, he was accepted as a student at the Royal Academy when he was only 12, but he dates his real musical awakening to three key encounters. "I decided to play for people I admired, and to go on doing so until one of them opened the door for me. I just wanted someone to help me change from being a rather silly boy who played quite well, into being an artist."

Myra Hess was his first stop. "For three hours she tore my playing to shreds, to the point where I felt ready to give up all thought of becoming a pianist."

His next encounter was with Clifford Curzon, who was no less critical about his playing. "I suddenly realised that he had opened that door. He taught me that every time you go on stage you must re-create the works you play: put them through the prism of your mind."

His third encounter was with Claudio Arrau, the Chilean virtuoso, who opened his eyes to art and architecture, and taught him the importance of not getting one-tracked. "And I began to understand that everything a musician learns will influence his playing."

What advice would Katin give his younger self now, if he came knocking at the door? He looks blank. "I really don't know. But I certainly wouldn't advise him to do the big competitions, if he wants to retain his individuality. How can you claim that one player is better than another? Either one is not an artist - or one is. And if one is, it is in one's own unique way."

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RIMSKY-KORSAKOV may not have been a great composer, but his music has great charm, and it's good that this composer will herald the end of the Royal Opera as we know it, with his operatic fable, The Golden Cockerel, at Sadler's Wells.

To get a sense of what we may expect on 22 December, I look in on the designer Anthony Baker and the director Tim Hopkins. Baker's set-designs are gracefully suggestive, as befits their intention to point up the timelessness of Rimsky's satire (the plot concerns the pride and fall of a tsar).

Hopkins is one of those directors who turns an interview into a piece of performance art, using the word "console" as poetic types brandish "quotidian", and steel-and-glass architects negate their horrors with the aid of the term "nestle".

"The piece is, on the surface, festive," says Hopkins. "But it is not consoling. It's about disavowal, and creativity in the teeth of political unease. It's a kind of surrender to instability, which I find really thrilling."

Baker says they intend to use ambiguity "to give the audience the oxygen of creative choices". It will be, says Hopkins, "the perfect place for the doors of perception to open."

Well, there's a challenge to sort the men from the boys. Personally, I'll settle for a spot of consolation.

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