The great classical music swindle

***UPDATE*** Loving Miss Hatto will be broadcast on the BBC on 23rd December 2012

The name Joyce Hatto has been in the news again this week, as the BBC announced it will be making a TV film about her, to be shot on location in Dublin. Starring Alfred Molina and Francesca Annis, Loving Miss Hatto is scripted by British comedienne and writer, Victoria Wood, which immediately set alarm bells ringing in my head and that of a pianist friend: “It will be sentimental!” he declared. “It will be Joyce’s story told through the medium of ‘Acorn Antiques'”, I replied. All this remains to be seen until the film is broadcast….

It was perhaps inevitable that someone, somewhere would eventually pick up the Joyce Hatto story and run with it. In an unremarkable town in Hertfordshire, an astonishing fraud was born out of passion and ambition, a CD recording scam so jaw-droppingly artful it rocked the polite world of classical music, and provoked a firestorm of talk in internet forums and chat rooms around the world.

When the story broke early in 2007, I recall discussing it with aforementioned friend. I remember finding the story of Joyce Hatto and her devoted husband William ‘Barry’ Barrington-Coupe rather touching: a supreme act of love for his terminally ill wife. The whole story turned out to be a tale of plagiarism on a grand scale, a scheme so clever it left the musical establishment questioning everything they knew. It was quite probable that Joyce had colluded with Barry in the scam.

But why? Was it really an act of love, or was it to cock a massive snook at the stuffy, pompous classical music world and to raise two fingers to the critics who had panned Joyce’s last recitals, given when she was said to be sick with the cancer which eventually killed her (one critic said of her: “it was impolite to look ill” and, after adverse comments were made about her appearance on stage, she abandoned performing altogether in the 1970s)?

When her recordings started to appear on CD, critics praised them to the rafters, eulogising over her skill, her range, her technical prowess, and describing her variously as “the indomitable champion of Liszt” (Daily Telegraph), and a pianist with a broad and rich repertoire not seen since Busoni. The music critic of the Boston Globe declared her “the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.” Clearly, in the years since she retired from the concert platform, she had been working hard producing wondrous recordings, with the help of her husband, Barry, who owned the Concert Artists label. Her output was as astonishing as the wide range of her repertoire. She was compared to some of the greatest pianists of all time, such as Claudio Arrau, Dinu Lipatti and Sviatoslav Richter.

Her recordings were still receiving glowing plaudits when she died in 2006, but there were detractors too, as pianophiles in internet chat rooms around the globe gathered to discuss her oeuvre. How was it possible that every single CD was perfection? Was she really such an exceptional pianist, who could turn her hand to anything with apparent ease? A number of people began to suspect they might be prey to some sort of hoax, but when critic Jeremy Nicholas, who had staked his reputation on Joyce Hatto, made an open challenge in Gramophone magazine to anyone who had evidence of fakery to present it in a court of law, no one came forward. He had reckoned without the technology of iTunes…..

The rest, as they say, is history. After her recording of Liszt’s ‘Transcendental Studies’ was found to have been manipulated and “doctored”, more recordings were examined, and evidence of the forgery became clear: put simply, Barry had been ripping off recordings of other pianists – Lazlo Simon, Marc-André Hamelin, Ingrid Haebler to name a few – and, with a little clever technological tweaking, passing them off as Joyce’s. Gramophone broke the story in February 2007, and the furore quickly earned the nickname ‘Hattogate’.

I started to collect articles and other snippets and morsels about Joyce with the intention of writing a short story or novella about her. The story of her life, her marriage to Barry, the scam itself seemed at once the stuff of fantasy – and self-delusion – and proof that truth is stranger than fiction. In reality, she probably wasn’t that great a pianist: there is very little biographical and documentary information about her, but patchy reviews from the 1950s, when she married Barry, reveal something about the true nature of her playing and her pianistic personality. It also emerged that statements about Joyce’s family were untrue, and that Barry had spent a year in prison in 1966 for wrongful tax submissions.

Did the recording scam start out as a game, a bit of fun that got out of hand? Or was there more malign intent on the part of Joyce and Barry to hoodwink the music press? It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for sure as Barry maintains tight-lipped on the subject. The only thing he has stated, and restated, is that he did it for love.

And what of the artists whose recordings were plagiarised? Some have enjoyed renowned acclaim and recognition as a consequence, proving that the scam has had a curiously double-edged effect. A number of the artists who were involved could call for criminal charges to be brought against Barry, but it seems that quite a few people just feel sorry for him.

It’s a peculiarly English tale, in my view: the domestic setting, the eccentric characters, the lame attempts to invent orchestras with which Joyce was said to perform (such as the National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra). And fakery like this is nothing new: remember the Hitler diaries, or Van Meegeren’s fake Vermeers? The acclaimed author William Boyd invented an artist, Nat Tate, wrote a biography for him, and even produced some pictures by him (in fact, Boyd’s own doodles). I suspect people do this simply because they can (the technology Barry used to fake Joyce’s recordings was not particularly complicated), and there’s a certain amount of delicious schadenfreude to be gained in sitting back and waiting for the reaction of the critics and the so-called ‘experts’. I admit I rather enjoyed it too.

Let us hope that the film of Joyce Hatto’s life is balanced, sympathetic and unsentimental. The story certainly has plenty of scope for comedy, but I would hate to think the main players were turned into figures of fun as a result. Meanwhile, it’s still possible to find a handful of Joyce’s recordings on eBay.

These are my personal thoughts on ‘Hattogate’, and do no reflect the views of anyone else or any music publications. This post was first published in spring 2012.

Trailer of forthcoming BBC tv dramatisation:

4 thoughts on “The great classical music swindle”

  1. ha, that’s brilliant😀 I don’t remember any of that at all but 2006 was SO LONG AGO (sarcasm at my memory). Dublin though, that’s where I live.I wonder if I can gatecrash the filming.

    Thanks for the heads up, lady🙂 I need to find more about it! How intriguing! I wonder what the film will be like? Like Shine crossed with CSI…

    1. When the story first broke, it was mostly confined to the music press (where there were a lot of red faces!), but as the extant of the fraud was revealed, the mainstream press latched on to it. “Shine crossed with CSI…” love it!🙂

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