THE 66 PIANISTS BEHIND JOYCE HATTO
Rod Williams tells the story of Joyce Hatto, the celebrated pianist whose works were mostly faked, in the current issue of Intelligent Life magazine. She was no genius, he says in this afterword: but perhaps her husband was ...
Special for MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
WHEN Joyce Hatto, a British pianist, died last year at 77 after a long battle with cancer, she was festooned with plaudits. An obituary in The Guardian called her ‘One of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced.’ A concert pianist, Ivan Davis, declared her a ‘national treasure ... I believe she will have extraordinary posthumous acclaim.’ According to a critic for Gramophone, Jed Distler, she was ‘one of the greatest, most consistently satisfying pianists in history.’
The problem was, she wasn't always the pianist. Early this year news broke that some of her CDs were illegal copies of recordings stolen from other pianists. They had been doctored by Hatto’s husband and producer, William Barrington-Coupe, who, having first denied wrong-doing, subsequently claimed to have embarked on the deception because his wife’s recording sessions were marred by ‘little grunts of pain’.
Mr Barrington-Coupe has refused to divulge which recordings were plundered, but this year an international team of pianophiles has been hunting down the sources for every Hatto CD (see www.farhanmalik.com for a list of all the authentications to date). Recordings by 66 pianists have been identified so far. It may well be that all Hatto’s hundred CDs were fakes--with the exception of Arnold Bax’s ‘Symphonic Variations’ which she really did record, with Vernon Handley, in 1970.
The Hatto affair raises a number of intriguing aesthetic questions. If Hatto was considered ‘one of the greatest pianists no-one has ever heard of’ (as Richard Dyer said in the Boston Globe), does this mean that 66 largely-obscure pianists who provided her material deserve the same accolade? Or did the magic spell of these recordings vanish when Hatto was revealed as a fraud? And were Mr Barrington-Coupe’s doctored recordings actually an improvement on the original versions?
With a few exceptions, the 66 pianists identified so far are an obscure collection. Of necessity, Mr Barrington-Coupe had to steal from artists who would not easily be recognised: humble, egoless servants of the text. It would have been difficult to plagiarise recordings by Mikhael Pletnev, Ivo Pogorelich or Lang Lang, for example, pianists whose very personal approach to interpretation is immediately recognisable.
The irony is that Hatto drew praise for her ‘essential musical humility’--as Andrew Macgregor said on BBC 3. Or as Frank Siebert expressed it in a review for a German magazine, Fono Forum: ‘The piano art of Joyce Hatto stands in contrast to today’s ostentatious music business to which her playing is a corrective. She makes music without imposed superlatives’.
Perhaps this very absence of ego is why so many of the ripped-off pianists are not better known. Certainly, many of them are notable for just one or two excellent CDs. Recordings widely acclaimed by piano cognoscenti include ‘Nojima Plays Liszt’ (Minoru Nojima, 1993, Reference Recordings); Arthur Moreira Lima’s ‘Chopin Waltzes’ (Pro Arte 177); and Sergei Babayan’s ‘Scarlatti Sonatas’ (Pro Piano records).
But many of the ripped-off recordings, deprived of the halo effect of Hatto’s tragically uplifting story, now seem rather less impressive. According to Gregor Benko, co-founder of the International Piano Archives in Maryland: ‘A few of the pirated performances were excellent or superior. Most of them, the majority of them, however, were middle of the road, chrome-plated conservatory graduate style delineations of the text, without much interpretation, personality or musical soul’.
It turns out that some of the most widely acclaimed Hatto performances were lifted from several sources and spliced together by Mr Barrington-Coupe. An American collector and pianophile, Farhan Malik, has spent months deconstructing the forgeries. ‘In some cases the speeding up really does improve a performanc’, he tells me. ‘I will give you an example: the Chopin Godowsky ‘Fourth Etude’. That’s Carlo Grante. It’s really much better than the original Carlo Grante. Carlo Grante has to slow down for the middle section because it’s more difficult. But Joyce Hatto doesn’t.’ Likewise, Alexander Ghindin’s recording of the Mendelssohn Rachmaninoff Scherzo from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ has been sped up by 4.23%. ‘The Hatto really is much more impressiv’.
Mr Malik has the greatest admiration for Hatto’s ‘Brahms Paganini Variations’. All but eight of the variations are lifted from Lilya Zilberstein on Deutsche Gramophone--an excellent recording in its own right. Mr Barrington-Coupe has taken six variations from Matti Raekallio on Ondine, and two variations from Evgeny Kissin on BMG. ‘These substitutions are in all cases an improvement over Zilberstein in those variations,’ says Mr Malik, ‘Hatto has basically removed much of the unevenness and created a superb rendition’.
Mr Malik considers this hybrid performance ‘a masterpiec’. When I told William Barrington-Coupe about this verdict he seemed pleased. He told me he was sure that people would still be listening to the Hatto ‘Brahms Paganini Variations’ in 50 years time.