Tuesday, 6 March 2007

And now for something completely different

The world of classical music has been rocked in recent weeks by a scandal whose intricacies will keep bloggers in this field busy far, far into the future.

The bald facts are these. Joyce Hatto was a concert pianist. She was born in 1928, achieved modest fame (and a mixed critical response) as a performing artist in between the 1950s and ’70s before retiring from the concert platform in 1979 after the onset of ovarian cancer. She died at the end of June last year and was hailed in an obituary in The Guardian as ‘one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced.’ The tone of obituaries in the Daily Telegraph, the Gramophone and Boston Globe, to name but three, were couched in similarly extravagant terms.

So what happened? Why the sea change? Well, in the 1990s Hatto embarked on a CD recording programme with her record-producer husband, William Barrington-Coupe which over a decade and a half resulted in the production of no fewer than 119 recordings on Barringon-Coupe’s Concert Artist Records label. The number itself is extraordinary – few if any ‘classical’ artists of whatever calibre record seven or more discs a year – but what was even more surprising was the critical reception these recordings received. No-one at that stage seems to have asked themselves how a person, who had at best enjoyed modest success in her concert career, could all of a sudden start producing records which reputable critics were comparing with those of some of the great pianistic legends.

Such was the situation until earlier this year when a financial analyst from Mount Vernon, New York was downloading Joyce Hatto’s recording of Liszt’s twelve Transcendental Etudes from the iTunes website. The software used by iTunes identified the recording as being not by Hatto but by László Simon! The gentleman concerned contacted a critic who writes for both Classics Today and the Gramophone . Further investigations were carried out by, among others, Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio, a company specialising in the restoration of early recordings.

Although Rose quickly confirmed that at least some of the tracks of the Hatto Transcendental Etudes CD were identical to those of László Simon’s recording on the Swedish BIS label, William Barrington-Coupe to start with merely expressed himself surprised. Analysis of other Hatto CDs followed with equally surprising results and on 26 February in a letter to Robert von Bahr of BIS, Barrington-Coupe finally confessed to making fraudulent use of other people’s recordings as editing material in his wife’s recordings, claiming he did so to cover technical flaws by and even gasps of pain from the terminally ill pianist.

But is this what happened? Is this just a tragic tale of a distraught husband’s efforts to do his best for his dying wife or was the intent to deceive there from the outset? And if so, by whom? To what extent was Joyce Hatto herself aware or even complicit in what her husband was up to? Are any of the 119 Hatto CDs her own work? It has even been suggested that the lady may have succumbed to her illness a good deal sooner than June 2006. These and many other questions still have to be answered. Two things are certain. Joyce Hatto's reputation as a pianist is in ruins and that itself is a tragedy. There is also little doubt that a good deal of egg has attached itself to the faces of a number of the 'great and good' in classical music's circle of critics. To his credit, one of them deals here with some of the issues.

A fuller account of events as they are currently known may be read in Wikipedia and on the Pristine Audio website. The links in this posting and then the links within the links should satisfy even the most curious.

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