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Thursday March 22 2007

I have so far written only once, at CNE IP, about the Joyce Hatto fraud, and then only in briefly comparing the amount of harm it has done with the amount of harm done by people who sell fake medicinal drugs.  Very little and a hell of a lot being my point in that piece.  For, as I think this guy pointed out (so I read somewhere), the Hatto affair really wasn’t a big deal.  The Hatto CDs achieved some reputation but very little circulation.  As soon as they started getting around in anything resembling non-trivial numbers, the fraud was discovered.

For those who don’t know, what happened was that Joyce Hatto, who died last year at the age of 77, a quite good pianist but past her peak because stricken with cancer, was passed off as a pianist of genius by some combination of her husband William Barrington-Coupe (definitely) and herself (maybe).  He (they) copied and in some cases electronically mucked about with the CDs of a variety of other pianists.  A small critical buzz of approval and sentimental excitement - so ill, so talented, so accomplished, what a story, etc. - began to spread.  But then, someone stuck a Hatto CD into a computer and was told that yes it was Liszt, but no, it was not Hatto.  It was played by somebody called László Simon.  Audio analysis confirmed that answer, and other unmaskings of other Hatto CDs followed in a rush.

But really, who suffered?  A few critics were made to look rather foolish, especially one unfortunate who (I read somewhere at the time when the fuss was at its height) compared the Joyce Hatto version of something favourably with another version of the same music by somebody else which, he said, wasn’t nearly so good, unaware that they were identical CDs, the Hatto being a straight and unaltered copy of the other!  Then, worse, he tried to brazen this out as not ridiculous!  So, egg on face there.  But other critics quite reasonably pointed out that being defrauded by frauds is no great sin, and that they stood by what they had said about the actual “Hatto” performances that they had reviewed.

The very few people who parted with a lot of money for “Hatto” CDs are no doubt feeling somewhat hard done by, but as I pointed out in my CNE piece, it’s not as if these CDs aren’t really the music of Chopin, Rachmaninov, Beethoven, Brahms and the rest of them.  Only the packaging is lies.  In some cases the timings were manipulated, so those CDs aren’t very real, although still perfectly recognisable as that particular music.  As I say, who really suffered?

Certainly not the musicians whose performances were “stolen”.  The inverted commas are there, as so often when one writes about intellectual property matters, because this kind of “stealing” is not at all like someone stealing your car or your camera.  That really hurts.  That really costs you.  You suffer.  You curse.  You call the police and demand – well, hope – for some action.  But if someone “steals” your rather obscure recording of some Debussy, and as a result, your name gets in the papers, maybe years after you recorded the thing, are you angry?  Hardly.

Consider the non-plight of Yefim Bronfman, whose recordings of Rachmaninov’s Second and Third Piano Concertos were copied and reissued under the Hatto flag, with their own made-up conductor supposedly conducting (rather than Esa-Pekka Salonen).  The Bronfman/Salonen CD in its bona fide packaging is still available, and all that has happened to Bronfman is that some highly welcome attention has been paid, again, to how good his Third Piano Concerto performance in particular was.  There must have been a few extra sales of this CD, because of the Hatto affair.  Is anyone suggesting that this CD has now become of less interest to classical CD buyers as a result of the Hatto affair?

The reaction of the boss of BIS (some of whose recordings were also copied, including the one by László Simon, also seems to me to be spot on.  He just sad: this is a very sad story about which we are going to do nothing.

My friend Julian Taylor may now be feeling very slightly embarrassed, for blogging to the effect that the truth about Joyce Hatto has now “finally” been revealed.  Personally, I regard the Barrington-Coupe admission that he links to as a retreat in the face of overwhelming force rather than a genuine surrender, that is to say the final truth.  He has cheated until now, so why now believe that he has suddenly turned over a new leaf and is telling not just some of the truth, but the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  More likely is that he admitted what he had to admit, and then concocted another bogus yarn designed, not to tell anyone what really happened, but to enable him to cling, at least in his own eyes, to some shreds of dignity.  His dignity being, I surmise, now, still, being something that he takes a lot more seriously than anyone else does.  Meanwhile, I like the speculation here, that Barrington-Coupe has been trying to recoup (sorry couldn’t resist) his losses by auctioning Hatto CDs on eBay.  For, as I speculated in my CNE piece, the price of Hatto CDs has surely now gone up.  There is general agreement that the Hatto Barrington-Coupe team at least chose pretty good recorded performances to copy.  I would certainly not now part with the Hatto Chopin CD that I bought second hand for eight pounds for anything less than about thirty.

A further rather amusing embarrassment can be found in the latest issue of the Gramophone (April 2007), in which there was an article (pp. 26-27) by editor James Inverne summarising the story of the fraud.  Inverne carefully pulls his punches and refrains from saying bluntly what everybody (including him surely) thinks, presumably for legal reasons, but he makes it all fairly clear.  But then, the final paragraph of a review by Bryce Morrison of a Chopin Complete Waltzes CD, on page 83 of the exact same issue of Gramophone, reads thus:

Mursky offers the five additional Waltzes in performances more prosaic than necessarily persuasive and also a world premiere of an alternative version of the A flat Waltz, Op 34 No 1.  This includes some ear-tickling rather than substantial variants and, disappointingly, dispenses with its whirlwind coda.  Profil’s sound is tight and claustrophobic and so there is little rivalry for legendary recordings by Cortot, Lipatti, Zimerman and, most of all, Joyce Hatto who once more gives us the most richly inclusive performance of all.

Technically that’s true.  But presumably she only “gives” it to us after getting it from somebody else, although I haven’t been able to find out who.  And I suppose that that “richly inclusive” means that this could just be a deliberate joke.  If so, I think it misfires.  Far more likely is that this is exactly what it seems, an editorial blunder.

It has been said that Barrington-Coupe couldn’t possibly have done all this for money, because – hey! - he didn’t make any!  It doesn’t follow.  I think he hoped to make lots of money.  He just didn’t succeed.  I think he hoped that the fraud would last, perhaps for ever, and that he would make not only tons of money, but also lots of dignity points, as the Great Recording Engineer for the Late Great Pianist.  Saying that he wasn’t trying to make money is like saying that failed bank robbers weren’t trying to steal money, merely because they didn’t succeed in stealing any.

Had the iTunes software that immediately flagged up the Hatto fraud not worked its magic, then serious money might have changed hands in Barrington-Coupe’s direction.  Serious harm might have been done to the sales of rival CDs, by the pianists who actually made the Hatto recordings, and by other rival pianists offering the same music in different performances.  If the fraud had then finally come to light, after years of Barrington-Coupe bragging about what a Great Pianist his wife had been, CD retailers might eventually have been stuck with expensive and unsaleable crates of Hatto.  I might have spent fifty quid on a second hand set of the complete Hatto, and regretted it.  But none of that happened.  (I actually spent eight quid on that one Hatto Chopin CD, the real player of which I now know, and am decidedly chuffed to own it.  Nice conversation piece for the future.)

Which is why the whole truth about the Hatto affair will almost certainly never be widely known.  Type “Joyce Hatto” into google news, and it becomes clear that this story is now over.  About a dozen of the hundred or more Hatto CDs have been unmasked with detailed analysis as being really by this or that other pianist, or pianists.  Are the rest of them fakes?  Almost certainly, but who cares?  They aren’t for sale any longer, so far as I am aware.

My guesses and everyone else’s guesses about Barrington-Coupe’s motives and about the precise degree to which Joyce Hatto herself was involved in all this cheating will probably remain guesses.  A further flurry of embarrassment is perhaps now being suffered by anyone who wrote this business up when it hit the newspapers as the “biggest fraud in the history of classical music”, “the world of classical music has been rocked to its foundations”, “nothing will ever be the same again”, or whatever.  And, that will be that.

I’ll end by telling you what a real, big classical music fraud would be like.  Suppose that it were now to emerge that from about 1957 onwards, Otto Klemperer was in fact totally ga-ga, and that all his rehearsals and all his recordings from then on had been supervised by others, and his actual performances were really bossed by the leader of the orchestra, the senior violinist, with Klemperer merely waving his hands vaguely at the orchestra in time with the music, like me when I conduct my stereo.  Suppose that cleverly placed mirrors, or perhaps electronic signalling devices of some kind, had been used during performances to disguise how little attention the musicians were paying to Klemperer, and how much to their real boss, the senior violinist.  Suppose an elderly recording engineer now broke cover and described all the exhausting and time-consuming cheating and timing manipulation involved in bodging together a late Klemperer CD, far more than anyone had realised, then or since.  Now that would really be something!

Norman Lebrecht hints in this piece that a more or less severely diluted version of that syndrome might indeed apply in not a few cases of very esteemed but very elderly and decidedly past-it conductors.  And you often hear critics grumbling about how much editing is involved in contriving classical CDs, by artists of all ages.  This is why many people now like buying “live” recordings.  Too bad that they too are often severely manipulated, with rehearsal “performances” freely plundered to paper over all the cracks in the performance on the night.  Or, as often happens now, performances on the nights.

I’m not so bothered about all this contrivance, any more than I care about the alleged menace of pop music that is entirely contrived in recording studios, with artists who could never do it for real, accompanied with real old fashioned musical instruments, on a stage.  I actually like a lot of what is called “manufactured” pop.  I think it has added an extra dimension of fun and creativity to pop music.  Indeed I think that such contrivance is a major part of what makes pop music so great.

What matters to me is the musical result.  The fact that some particular performance owes rather more to the recording engineer and the editor, and rather less to the bird or bloke whose picture is on the cover, for me, matters a bit, especially with classical music performances, but not that much.

I spent the last few weeks, ever since this Hatto drama first erupted, wondering what the hell to say about it all, what with me being an occasional classical music blogger, a sort of one-eyed classical expert in the land of the largely classical-blind bit of the blogosphere that I inhabit.  But what to say?  It was interesting, yes, and I gleefully shared the story with my less classically switched-on friends.  But honestly, what was there to say?  It’s not that big a deal, I thought, as I kept postponing my bloggings about it all.  And then I thought, well, that’s what I’ll say.