Joyce Hilda Hatto (1928-2006) was a British pianist who died on the 29th June 2006 at the age of seventy-seven after battling cancer for many years. She was well regarded in some quarters, but not that particularly successful in her chosen career (for which she blamed politics within the music business). Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1970 she gave up public performances in 1976, but was later to claim that a "new form of treatment from the US" allowed her to continue recording. Her husband William Barrington-Coupe set up the Concert Artist label, which from 1989 onwards began releasing a series of CDs featuring his wife's performances all of which were recorded at the label's Cambridge studio.
By the time of her death he had released some 119 CDs which included his wife's recordings of such works as Bach's '48'; the complete sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Prokofiev; the concertos of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninov; the entire 54 Studies on Chopin's Etudes by Leopold Godowsky (apparently the most difficult piano music ever written); Arnold Bax's Symphonic Variations, Paul Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis, and sundry other works by Scarlatti, Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninov. The Guardian was to assert that "Not one of her recordings, covering a spectrum from Scarlatti to Messiaen and with each composer stylistically defined, lacks some special insight even in the most familiar repertoire."
During the 1990s she developed something of a cult status amongst piano aficionados, as Gramophone magazine put it "to love Hatto recordings was to be in the know". The development of the cult being no doubt helped by the fact that Concert Artist CD's were rather difficult to get hold of, and so her name was thus unknown to the general public. Gramophone’s critics began to champion her talents, and they were soon joined by other luminaries in the world of classical music, including Frank Siebert in Germany's Fono Forum, and the American Richard Dyer of the Boston Globe, who claimed to have "rediscovered" her in 2006 and rushed across the Atlantic to interview her. By the time of her death she had been elevated to the status of greatest pianist almost nobody ever heard of; the Guardian called her "one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced" whilst the Times described her as "a singular artist of superlative technique and interpretation". The American pianist Ivan Davis offered the opinion that she would receive "extraordinary posthumous acclaim".
Not everyone was convinced by the hype surrounding Hatto's recordings
some found it difficult to believe that any one performer, let alone one suffering from cancer was capable of recording such an extensive and varied repetoire, and there were persistent rumours that there was something fishy going on. Gramophone magazine even published an appeal for anyone in possession of any evidence of wrong-doing to come forward, but no one did.
Everything changed when a critic working for Gramophone placed the CD of Hatto playing Liszt's Twelve Transcendental Studies in the CD drive of his computer and fired up his iTunes music player to listen to the disc. Thanks to the player's link to the online Compact Disc Database, it promptly identified the recording as being performed by a completely different pianist named Lászlo Simon. The critic then decided to listen to the Simon album and came to the conclusion that as far as their ears were concerned it sounded exactly the same as the Hatto recording. Said critic then repeated the exercise with a recording of Hatto playing two Rachmaninov Piano Concertos and once again iTunes reported that it was by someone quite different, this time a pianist named Yefim Bronfman, once again the critic listened to both recordings and decided that they appeared to be the same.
This prompted Gramophone to contact a company called Pristine Audio which had the technical expertise to carry out an examination of the waveforms of both the Hatto and the Simon recordings. Pristine Audio's Andrew Rose duly reported that "Without a shadow of a doubt, ten of the tracks on the Liszt disc are identical to those on the Simon." He subsequently identified another track as having been lifted from another CD Nojima Plays Liszt, released in 1993 by Reference Recordings. For good measure they then examined Hatto disc of music by Godowsky, and concluded that the Hatto recording was identical to that produced the pianist Carlo Grante on a CD issued by Altarus. Only in this case the Hatto CD had been stretched (or slowed down) by just over 15% which, apparently, explained its rather 'odd' sound.
On the 20th February Gramophone reported that it had received a private e-mail from William Barrington-Coupe in which he denied any wrongdoing and stated his intention to have his own sound engineer prepare his own comparisons. On the following day the Daily Telegraph spoke to Barrington-Coupe and reported his categorical denial that he had faked any of his wife's recordings. Such protestations of innocence did not however last much more than a week as on the 27th February the BBC was reporting that Barrington-Coupe had finally admitted in a letter to the Swedish record company BIS (which was responsible for the release of Lászlo Simon's recording of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes) that he had indeed done just that.
According to Barrington-Coupe's explanation of events, the recordings he made of his wife's performances were marred by her grunts of pain as she played, so he began patching in short passages by other performers of a similar sound and style in order to mask these imperfections. He gradually began inserting longer sections, until he reached the stage where he was passing off entire recordings as being by his wife. As he later told The Times, "I faked my wife’s recordings to please her", and seems to have been purely motivated by the desire to give her at least the illusion of a great end to an otherwise overlooked career.
Having now admitted that he acted "stupidly, dishonestly and unlawfully", he has closed down his operation, destroyed the remaining stock and has claimed that all he wants is "a little bit of peace."
This has left a large number of people in the world of classical music with a considerable quantity of egg smeared over their faces. As BBC Music pointed out, when one leading piano critic in Gramophone magazine reviewed Hatto's Godowsky CD, he gave it a rave review and sneered at the "Doubting Thomases, of which there are apparently many". He was apparently unaware of the fact that he had already reviewed that same recording in 1998, (when of course it had been released under the name of the actual performer Carlo Grante) and had given a slightly less gushing review.
Indeed it is remarkable how the great and the good of the classical music world were so easily fooled, and the real Joyce Hatto scandal isn't so much that William Barrington-Coupe faked a few CDs, but the revelation that so many of the so-called music critics and aficianados of classical music have absolutely no real idea of what they're listening to.
As strange as this story might by, it later became even more strange, as although the report in Gramophone appeared to suggest that it was they that had unearthed the whole sorry story, this wasn't quite the whole truth.
What really happened was that it was a gentleman by the name of Brian Ventura, who had first come across the apparent discrepancy identified by means of his use of the Compact Disc online database. On the 13th February Mr Ventura sent an email to a music critic named Jed Distler informing him of his discovery, and it was Distler, who in in the past written favourable reviews of Hatto CD's for both Gramaphone and Classics Today, then decided as a matter of courtesy, to inform both magazines that there might be something wrong with at least some of the Hatto recordings. As David Hurwitz, the Executive Editor of Classics Today later put it "Gramophone, sensing a 'scoop', rushed onto its website a somewhat skewed version of this story, with the actual sequence of events and persons involved glossed over or omitted entirely".
The point here being that Gramophone had been one of the more avid promoters of the whole Hatto phenomenon in the first place and that their treatment of the story should be seen more as an exercise in damage limitation.
Further revelations about the activities William Barrington-Coupe appeared in Private Eye, which noted that he was well known in the 1960s for running a record label that produced somewhat dubious releases of classical works emanating from behind the Iron Curtain.
Many of these were believed to have been taped radio broadcasts, with their identity obscured when the published recordings were then credited entirely non-existent people. Private Eye also revealed that he had been previously prosecuted for evading Purchase Tax, which led to the financial collapse of another of his recording ventures.
- James Inverne, Masterpieces Or Fakes? The Joyce Hatto Scandal February 15 2007
- Tom Simonite, iTunes fingers musical fraud, New Scientist
- Late Joyce Hatto recordings are fakes BBC Music 16/02/2007
- Dan Bell, Computer casts doubt on mysterious piano maestro,
The Guardian February 17, 2007
- Martin Beckford, My wife's virtuoso recordings are genuine, Daily Telegraph 21/02/2007
- Classical CDs 'faked' by producer BBC 27 February 2007