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Hatto Week 2 ; fictitious recordings and blind listenings

One week on, clarification, not explanation. The story has been extensively reported in the mainstream (i.e. not just musical) news media, and has now died down, leaving us not much the wiser as to matters of real psychological interest.

Indeed, the most generous speculation comes from Robert Bahr, head of BIS (whose Liszt Transcendental Etudes sparked off the story) – if Hatto's husband William Barrington-Coupe (pictured, Geoff Pugh - The Telegraph) did it from love, says Bahr, BIS would not be inclined to press charges.  

Fictitiously attributed recordings have a long and largely legal history, in fact. For all sorts of good reasons, however, a record company may well license out a recording for which it has the rights, on condition that the performers are listed by pseudonyms. This may be to protect contract conditions of exclusivity (of either party), or not to cheapen famous performers' intellectual property.  

If you go into a discount bookshop today, the CDs (especially from the German company Pilz) often have these fictitious performers, such as the conductor Albert Lizzio, or the Caspar da Salo quartet. The latter's Haydn's Op 64 set is highly rated; the real performers on that recording not yet identified; other works may feature different “Caspar da Salos” of course.  

I have myself a fiery recording of Schumann's Piano Concerto where the pianist is listed as ‘Martha Bergerich.' Hatto's husband, made many pseudonymous LP issues, once memorably calling a conductor ‘Maestro Havaguess' -
I ask you!   Nothing is implied as to their legality or otherwise; it is known however, that Barrington-Coupe served time in prison for business fraud unrelated to music.

He (and someone who at least signed herself Joyce Hatto, though always through a printed scan of a handwritten signature!) corresponded extensively with those who bought or reviewed the ‘Hatto' discs. These letters and e-mails invariably expressed not only great appreciation of the listener's interest, but also offered plenty of anecdotes about
the deceased great and good of the musical past (it's all stuff like “Annie Fischer said this to me” etc etc). These anecdotes would have captivated their intended audience, perhaps been quoted in articles and greatly added to the aura of authenticity and mystique around Hatto.

What else do we now know? The weight of evidence has massively increased, with hourly attributions of the allegedly faked recordings. We know that the Gracenote/iTunes database, which first precipitated the exposure, is far from foolproof; on the other hand the Royal Holloway analysis group had probably arrived at its result about the Hatto Chopin Mazurkas some time ago, but waited until the story broke before making public conclusions with such inflammatory legal and moral implications.  

Next, what light is shed on critical practice? The original judgments of Hatto discs have of course been re-examined. Hindsight is of course the most certain analytical tool there is, but the dramatic irony revealed is striking. One radio interviewer even says: ‘Hatto has no interest in the authenticity movement.' To take the two most distinguished of Hatto's reviewers, Bryce Morrison praised, as one of Hatto's virtues, her ability to sound "radically different" from one recording to the next. And Ates Orga wrote presciently, “Playing Chopin she's a very different artist, another pianist even, from the one met in Brahms.”

Other critics have a bigger question mark over their own judgment.* Jed Distler, for example, has been widely criticised for a laudatory review of Hatto's Chopin Etudes and a very critical one of the identical, non-tampered original from which it was copied. Distler also achieved notoriety for ‘comparing' the significant changes in two Mravinsky Bruckner discs, when one had simply been printed with the wrong date and the two were actually identical, but by another curious irony, it was his computer that first alerted him, and therefore the world, to the alleged fraud.  

So, should/could discs be reviewed completely blind – on the analogy of the orchestral auditions discussed in my article on judgment and intuition? No, although it would be easy to copy every disc onto a blank CD-R before giving it out for review. But the extra work (and extra person) involved and the need to secure the agreement of the record companies means the procedure would be impracticable. Besides, many discs are posted direct to reviewers with a record company address label; any new release appears in press material before it is available physically, so its identity can be easily guessed even from a blank. If nothing else, ‘Hattogate' reminds us that music criticism is a fragile form of perception and writing.  

Ying Chang

See update 26 February: 'I did it for my wife' – William Barrington-Coupe confesses and its assessment below by our Ying Chang:


This morning, (February 27th, 2007) the papers all display plenty of column inches about the 'confession' of William Barrington-Coupe, Joyce Hatto's husband. The Telegraph tells us that, despite Mr Barrington-Coupe's admissions, "Hertfordshire Police said that they would take no action unless the copyright owners of the original recordings made complaints".

His admission (which leaves many unanswered questions) comes in the form of a letter written by Barrington-Coupe to Robert von Bahr, the head of BIS (pictured), who had already come up with a possible human explanation for the hoax, sympathetically representing it as a possible effect of Barrington-Coupe's love of his wife.

It is almost as if Barrington-Coupe has clutched onto this, as a drowning man to a piece of driftwood.

His letter at first sight reads very well. Yes, he did it for love. Yes, it started off quite innocently, when he remembered that once, no less than Kirsten Flagstad's high notes had been covered by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. And it only arose because Hatto lived at the wrong time, when her cassette recordings were no longer of interest in the CD era. And the numbers involved were small, 5000-odd records last year, 3000-odd the year before...

I am not convinced.

When Barrington-Coupe writes that the initial impetus to fake was no more than to cover his wife's 'grunts of pain' when trying to re-record the repertoire, this is transparently a stupid play for sympathy. Any record producer or engineer will tell you that covering small mistakes or extraneous noises is far harder than splicing in a whole separate take. The need to match the ambience means that the smaller the edit, the harder it is, and covering it from a different recording, where the piano, acoustic and microphone placement are all different, is impossible. So the idea that he proceeded from small patches to larger and larger ones is the reverse of what happens in real life in the recording industry.

It is on a par with the myth he propagated for her obituaries, that 'three weeks before her death Hatto recorded Beethoven's Les Adieux (farewell - geddit?) sonata sitting at the piano in her wheelchair'...

Much more true to life is Barrington-Coupe's refusal to disclose what is authentic among the recordings (since the inference is likely to be that nothing is authentic) and his plea to be left alone.

It may be that record companies (and indeed, deluded fans) will think there is no profit in pursuing this. But there is no doubt that many innocent members of the public will have been swindled. Over 8000 records sold at 12 pounds each (to take the last two years alone) is one hundred thousand pounds; an amount not to be sniffed at. But, as von Bahr also said, Barrington-Coupe has already had plenty of time to hide the money. 

Ying Chang

Hatto – The End of the Affair

The “ Hatto Hoax” was one of the biggest scandals ever to hit the world of classical recordings.

Over a hundred piano recordings were passed off as the work of the invalid Joyce Hatto, the fraud was extensively discussed and was widely reported in the national media. Yet, almost immediately after Hatto's husband, William Barrington-Coupe (WBC), confessed to being the perpetrator, further news and discussion diminished to zero.

In particular, WBC's desire to be left alone expressed in his confession has happened.

His hoax was morally and intellectually despicable in stealing the work of honest artists, even if it was kindly suggested to him he did for love of his dying wife.

But no legal action, as far as we know, is being taken. Why?

The short answer is that it is in nobody's interest to prosecute or sue WBC. Let us see who might have wanted to.The most obvious victims are the artists themselves, but, as often in the music industry, they are actually at the back of the queue. Artists seldom own the exploitation rights to their own work, and they often receive very small royalties. Except in a few cases, the artists and recordings WBC chose were not the best-known; the sales of these discs would not have been large. Any monetary loss would have been very small. As the ‘ Hatto ' recordings received many good reviews, it is even possible to argue that the real artists have received a small amount of positive publicity.

The actual rights holders of these recordings are record companies. But a record company in the classical sector (even the biggest) depends on the energy of a very small number of individuals – which, for example, explains the personal nature of the generous response by von Bahr (Bis). Not one of the companies is likely to have in-house lawyers (though the majors obviously have access to the lawyers working for the music group as a whole). From a public relations point of view, it does not look good to hound a recently bereaved man in his seventies. A record company might only be a single person, but it would still look like a big organisation, “such and such limited,” taking on a single old man.

Finally, there are the innocent CD buyers. Even here, there is a leap between being swindled and taking legal action. If you bought a disc and liked it, you may feel that it gave you some pleasure anyway. If you bought many discs, you may feel (as some have shared their outrage on discussion fora) that you have been punished for your credulity. Or you may look on e-Bay and see that some Hatto discs apparently trade nowe for more than you paid for them...

Now look at it from the other side. Any action, and certainly a class action, against WBC would win. But his own resources are unlikely to be so great either. All the victims could gang up together, but end up recovering very little, and probably not even their legal costs. There is no collective will or practical benefit in pursuing WBC.

So the only argument for legal action is actually the moral one. To serve abstract justice. Sadly, in a sector of the music industry which is changing so fast and is under such pressure, almost everyone is just looking out for themselves, to survive, and - if fortunate - to innovate.

Apart from a very few, those who are doing well are having to take on an increasing amount of management and marketing functions themselves – witness such luminaries as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Labeque sisters (July 07 reviews), not to mention most major orchestras, forced into running their own record labels.

Morals round the dinner table are fine, but they don't feature on the bottom line of the balance sheet.

At best, “ Hattogate ” was a salutary warning to listeners and critics. At worst, it is yet another example of the substantive unfairness of life. Unfair to artists, unfair to lovers of classical music, potentially unfair even to Joyce Hatto herself.

We can only be grateful that so much good work, with so much integrity, is being done in the field of classical music that it will not be long before “ Hattogate ” is a distant , anomalous memory.

Ying Chang

For full background of the breaking scandal, see: http://www.pristineclassical.com/HattoHoax.html
& http://www.charm.rhul.ac.uk/content/contact/hatto_article.html

*Also Christopher Howell at http://www.musicweb-international.com/classrev/2007/Feb07/Hatto_Howell.htm


Reader's comment: - - the whole thing shows just how much critics are influenced by extramusical considerations. Of course, most performers realise very quickly that the audience, in part, hear what they see... A.S.

August 1 2009 - last night the Hatto Hoax was televised by Channel Four - so far, we have not located an URL to re-run the programme, which we missed seeing.

But we have turned up this valuable study of the scandal: http://www.pristineclassical.com/HattoHoax.html