The pianist behind the hands of Joyce Hatto

An intriguing envelope, postmarked from Ireland, dropped through my letterbox this morning, a welcome change from the daily deluge of Christmas mail. The A4 sheet of text, which accompanied the enclosed CD, immediately caught my attention when I saw the name Joyce Hatto, and initially I misread the text, thinking I’d been sent a recording to review by one of the artists Joyce and her husband ripped off in the course of their great classical music scam.

Pianist Archie Chen with actress Maimie McCoy who plays Joyce Hatto (right) as a young woman
Pianist Archie Chen with actress Maimie McCoy who plays Joyce Hatto (right) as a young woman

In fact, the CD, a collection of works by Chopin, performed by pianist Archie Chen, relates to the upcoming BBC biopic of Joyce Hatto, Loving Miss Hatto. Written by Victoria Wood and starring Francesca Annis and Alfred Molina, the film will be aired on Sunday 23rd December on BBC One.

Archie Chen is indeed the pianist “behind the hands” –  in that he provides the music for the film, under the direction of the musical director Niall Byrne. Chen himself is the pianist playing in the film, and he was also charged with teaching the actress Maimie McCoy, who plays Joyce as a young woman, how to play convincingly for the camera. The challenge for Chen was to learn some of the most difficult works in the repertoire in a very short space of time. As Chen himself says of working on the film: “I’m in such a privileged position to be involved in this project……I really relished the challenge of learning the most fiendishly difficult Godowsky Studies…..The hardest part was putting in the mistakes!”.

The release of the film coincides with the launch of Chen’s new CD ‘Chopin’, which features some of the composer’s best loved works, including the Ballade No. 3, the Scherzo No. 2 in B-flat minor op. 31, and all of the Impromptus, as well as the B minor Sonata. The opening Impromptu, in A-flat major, is a joyful outpouring, Chen opting for a more relaxed tempo than some performers, with restrained rubato and a thoughtful middle section. The Ballade No. 3 is graceful and elegant, with tasteful rubato and an enjoyably lilting tempo, which calls to mind the chime of a carriage clock (perhaps on the mantelpiece at Nohant?). In the Scherzo, once again a more spacious tempo allows us to enjoy all the contrasting elements and drama of this work. Likewise in the Sonata, tempos are measured and well thought out, in particular in the final movement (marked Presto non Tanto, far too many pianists, in my opinion, take this movement at such a gallop many of the details of the music are lost). Clean and expressive playing throughout, coupled with considered tempos and spare use of rubato, make this a CD to enjoy over several listenings.

Archie Chen ‘Chopin’ is available on CD or as a download

Archie Chen’s website

An earlier article I wrote on Joyce Hatto