Topic: Sports & Entertainment

Classical Music Ethics: The Strange Revenge of Joyce Hatto

This tale is a mystery, an ethics outrage, an epic practical joke or all three.

Joyce Hatto was a concert pianist who was driven from the stage by the cruelty of critics and cancer. The cancer caused her exhaustion and pain; the critics made her endure insults and demoralizing comments. In 1976, the agony of her disease became nearly unbearable, and when a critic commented that her illness made her difficult to watch, Hatto quit performing in public forever. But she continued to make studio recordings, thanks to discovering, she said, an experimental treatment that increased her energy while lessening her pain.

Before her illness she had received respectable and unspectacular notices at best, but the evidence of the recordings she began quietly releasing in the 1990s was that Joyce Hatto had evolved into something more, one of the most impressive and sensitive classical pianists who had ever lived. In recent years music critics discovered the recordings, all on an obscure record label called Concert Artists, and were stunned by their number and quality—119 CDs, more than the lifetime output of the long-lived and prolific performer like Arthur Rubenstein. But more impressive than their volume was their quality. The reaction of Richard Dyer, the well-respected music critic for the Boston Globe, was typical:

…I’ve heard only about a third of the Hatto CDs, but all of them are excellent, and the best of them document the art of a major musician. She boasts a fluent and all-encompassing technique….The records are well engineered, and she uses wonderful instruments; still, her beautiful sound is her own. Best of all is her musical imagination, which finds original things to say about the most familiar music. There is sadness, as well as glitter, in the Chopin Waltzes, for example; an operatic vocality and fluidity in her Mozart Sonatas; amazing individual characterizations of each of the Brahms Paganini Variations, made possible by an equally amazing pianistic command. Not one of the recordings that I have heard sounds hastily or carelessly prepared; not one of them lacks some special insight.

William Sorin, who runs a small record company, IPO, devoted to important but under-recorded jazz and classical pianists, acquired and listened to all of Hatto’s discs, and was even more rhapsodic:

For me, discovering her was like finding the Holy Grail. She has a beautiful sound, intelligence, and a scope of repertoire that is unrivaled. My favorites of her records are the Brahms discs, including the concertos, the Schubert, the Schumann. I think her playing of the Rachmaninoff solo piano music is unsurpassed, and I was bowled over by her Prokofiev Sonatas. The fact is, she plays everything well.

Shortly after her rediscovery by the critics, and having given several interviews, Hatto died in 2006. Her reputation continued to grow, however, until critic Jed Distler made a stunning and quite accidental discovery. Hatto’s CDs were fakes, taken from recordings made by other pianists. Every one of her performances that Distler examined turned out to be an exact digital match to a previously recorded version by another virtuoso, and many pianists were represented. Other investigators confirmed Distler’s findings, as critics banged their heads against the walls for falling for the elaborate scam and missing the many clues that should have made them wary. How could a middling concert performer battling cancer become a top-rank artist in her Golden Years? Why didn’t they have suspicions about the conductor of Hatto’s concerto recordings, identified as “René Køhler,” who does not seem to exist? Who ever heard of the orchestra he was supposed to have led, the “National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra,” which, as one blogger pointed out, has a name that is the equivalent “the National Symphony Symphony Symphony?”

The only voice being raised in Hatto’s support seems to be that of her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, who swears that the recordings are genuine, and vows to continue selling them. But the evidence contradicting him is overwhelming: every recording that has been examined appears to be fake. For everyone other than Barrington-Coupe (and even him, perhaps, as he says he has no explanation for the digital analysis results), the question is “Why?” Why would Hatto go to such lengths to devise a hoax that was certain to be discovered? Some of the recordings she appropriated are well-known. What was her motivation?

The most likely answer is that Joyce Hatto, and, it would seem, her husband, sought to teach a lesson in humility to the arrogant critics who helped drive her from the stage. Her deception proved, after all, that their supposedly trained ears could not recognize a great pianist’s performance when another’s name was attached to it. She made them look like fools, at least for a while, and for critics to be confronted with the consequences of their own hubris can be a good thing. But Joyce Hatto also gulled many music-lovers into purchases based on fraud. If her hoax was vengeance, it was vengeance administered with a shotgun, with many innocents injured in the gunfire. Like many who have led a disappointing life, Joyce Hatto appears to have allowed bitterness to consume her values, and she became willing to lie to the public in order to strike at the elite taste-makers in the classical music world. Now she will be remembered less for the beautiful music she made than for the hoax she devised, a shameful legacy. The tale of Joyce Hatto demonstrates what can happen when emotions trump ethical values.

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