Margaret Kitchin: Concert pianist and champion of modern British composers
Tuesday 01 July 2008
The pianist Margaret Kitchin was a child prodigy who later became a specialist in modern music. While she made few recordings, she was a regular for more than 20 years for this repertoire with the BBC, where she warmly remembered her favourite producer as Stephen Plaistow.
From a non-musical family, she was born of an English mother, Kate Piercy, and a Swiss father, Othmar Rothen, at Montreux, Switzerland, in 1914. Studying at the Montreux and Lausanne conservatoires with Jacqueline Blancard, she received the Prix d'Excellence at Lausanne in 1946. She married Michael Kitchin, a British Council officer and a musician and composer, in 1935 and they had two daughters.
After spending the Second World War in Switzerland, the family came to England in 1949, which Margaret Kitchin described as at first offering "nothing at all" by way of opportunities. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music and was soon awarded the LRAM. There she focused on contemporary music, played for the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM), and became associated with the brightest emerging British composers of the time, notably Peter Racine Fricker, who wrote her several works.
Kitchin's views on repertoire were trenchant. While she played Mozart, she did not favour Chopin or Schumann and preferred Stravinsky to Shostakovitch. When I asked her about Bach she joked, "I'd rather jump out of the window." "Modern music interested me because nobody else would play it," she said, adding, "I get very bored with the rest of music." She named the big names of the Second Viennese School, Berg, Schoenberg and Webern, and added Dallapiccola and Boulez.
Kitchin partnered the violinist Maria Lidka, appearing with her in Fricker's First Violin Sonata at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in 1950, later broadcast, and for the SPNM with Lidka she premiered Eva Ruth Spalding's Third Violin Sonata in 1952 and the Don Banks Violin Sonata at Morley College in 1953.
Morley College was then a centre for new music, and she had appeared there with the College Orchestra conducted by Walter Goehr in Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass in 1949, and Iain Hamilton's Piano Sonata Op 13 in 1952, which she later broadcast. In 1954 she played at North London Polytechnic in a student revival of Alan Bush's massive Piano Concerto, unheard since before the war, and was then invited to repeat the performance in Paris. On a Scandinavian tour in February 1956 she featured Fricker's music, and that August appeared at the Proms as one of the three soloists in Fricker's Concertante for Three Pianos and Strings with the Liverpool Philharmonic.
She favourably remembered Priaulx Rainier's Barbaric Dance Suite of 1949 which she premiered at the LSE Music Society in November 1950. It was Rainier who brought Kitchin and Michael Tippett together. In turn, years later, Tippett introduced her to her second husband Howard Hartog. Kitchin played all the Tippett sonatas, the Second of which is dedicated to her, and she recorded the Handel Variations under the composer's baton.
Kitchin's first commercial recording came when, in 1958, responding to an invitation from a then unknown promoter, Richard Itter, she recorded Tippett's Fantasy Sonata (his first) coupled with Iain Hamilton's Sonata Op 13. It was issued in 1960. This was for Itter's new Lyrita label, specialising in British music. The Tippett was recorded in one day at the studio Itter had built at his country home. Tippett was there and lay on the floor during takes and, at the lunch Itter's mother had cooked, "Michael talked a lot," Kitchin remembered, adding "Michael spoke French quite badly." Later, Lyrita asked her to do a programme of music by the Scottish composer William Wordsworth which impressed her less. Kitchin favoured the bold approach and confessed to liking "punchy music". Lyrita will reissue these recordings this month.
Her concert career developed, focusing on the serial and avant-garde repertoire, and she became the pianist the BBC often asked to do difficult modern works, usually learned for just one performance. Thus she played the Schoenberg Concerto, also giving it in Boston, and as well as her friends Fricker and Hamilton (whose First Piano Concerto is dedicated to her), sonatas and concertos by Alexander Goehr, Humphrey Searle, Elliott Carter, Roger Sessions, Thea Musgrave, Hans Werner Henze, Benjamin Britten, Elisabeth Lutyens, Gerard Schürmann and Anthony Gilbert. She frequently appeared with the horn player Barry Tuckwell in modern repertoire, works they championed including Hamilton's Sonata Notturna and Searle's Les Fleurs du Mal.
Many of Kitchin's BBC broadcasts have been preserved by the British Library Sound Archive, notable examples being Frank Martin's Petite Symphonie Concertante conducted by Paul Sacher, Dallapiccola's Piccola Concerto and Richard Rodney Bennett's Piano Studies. Her performance of Rainier's Barbaric Dance is preserved there, as are piano pieces by the famous pianist Artur Schnabel. She thought Schnabel's music "very good" and warmly remembered once meeting him at the railway station in Lausanne.
After divorce from her first husband, she kept her former name when in 1951 she married the impresario Howard Hartog, a champion of new music who owned the artists' agency Ingpen & Williams, run from the floor below their flat in Kensington. They were a powerhouse behind the promotion of much new music in the UK and at festivals abroad. Many clients became personal friends. In 1977 Margaret Kitchin suddenly gave up playing, and joined her husband in the business until his death from cancer in 1990. When asked about new music today she said she thought "the golden age has passed – I'm afraid it's gone".
In her last years, although housebound, she led a full life with many visitors and friends. The spacious sitting room at her flat, where I interviewed her last year, was adorned with many modern pictures; books lined the walls and were piled everywhere, on floor and piano. She was fascinated with crossword puzzles and with tennis, which she watched on television.
Margaret Elisabeth Rothen, concert pianist: born Montreux, Switzerland 23 March 1914; married 1935 Michael Kitchin (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1951 Howard Hartog (died 1990); died London 16 June 2008.
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