The Hatto Affair

There are frequent postings about music on this blog.  I enjoy hearing the clips, but am absolutely clueless when it comes to the different types of rock, the names of bands and performers, the history of their departures from bands and return to them, etc.  So now I’m writing about music and musicians that I do know something about.  Not exactly in retaliation, but more in the interest of diversity.

In 2005 I read an article by the Boston Globe‘s music critic Richard Dyer about  Joyce Hatto.  The headline ran: “After Recording 119 CDs, a Hidden Jewel comes to Light.  Fans and Critics Have Long Overlooked Pianist Joyce Hatto.”  The CDs appeared under the Concert Artist label, created by her husband, William Barrington-Coupe.  (Like his friends, I’ll call him Barry for short.)

This was an amazing pianist.  At age 71, wracked with cancer, she was recording in her husband’s studio virtually the whole classical repetoire, from J.S. Bach to Messiaen; a feat as yet unattempted by man or woman.   The recordings were all first class according to Dyer, who has a discriminating ear; and on top of that she was English.  In the entire 20th century, England had produced only three memorable pianists:  Solomon (who, by his novel use of first name only, anticipated Madonna by 90 years), Clifford Curzon, and Myra Hess. Even better, Hatto looked English: a bit horsey and Camilla-like because of her long face and strong jaw.

Right away, in great excitement, I sent Dyer’s article to my brother-in-law, who is a musicologist and amateur pianist.  Living outside of New York City, he goes to tons of piano recitals there.  It was with some satisfaction that I told him of a pianist that he’d never heard of—as Dyer put it, “[t]he greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.”  We exchanged Hatto CDs and emails about them.

Before the Globe article, excitement over Hatto was pretty much confined to bloggers.  After Dyer’s article and another one in the prestigious magazine Gramophone, the enthusiasm over Hatto spread to the larger musical world. The discovery of overlooked genius generates a lot of excitement.  I suppose part of the thrill is egotistical:  being a Hatto fan puts one in the know.  But at least in Hatto’s, case, there’s a deeper satisfaction.  Hatto’s career on the concert stage had been unremarkable, gaining her little recognition. By an unforgiving rule that condemns most of us to obscurity, people usually get the recognition that they merit.  But in this case, the rigid test of time turns out to be fallible:  an unregarded pianist turns out to be the greatest one alive.  This is something to celebrate.

The extraordinary stream of flawless recordings continued up to her death in 2006.  Then, the next year, the fraud collapsed.  All of her recordings, but one (she actually did play the piano) were made by other pianists, whose recordings her husband had swiped from other labels.

It seems that by the 1970s, Hatto and Barry concluded that the critics, who had given her concerts mixed reviews, would never accord her the acclaim she deserved.  So she retired from the concert hall; the explanation, given to anyone who cared, was ovarian cancer.  (She did in fact die of cancer at age 77; but her oncologist is quoted in a couple of sources as saying the cancer didn’t appear until the 1990s.)  Her husband had long been in the recording business; out of his technical expertise, great knowledge of the piano world, and musical taste they reinvented her career.

One thing that made the fraud possible is the amazing number —a glut, really —of excellent pianists around, then and now.  Even my brother-in-law hasn’t heard all their names.  Barry pirated performers who were at once first class and obscure sure to be applauded but unlikely to be recognized.  A great influx of talent had poured in from Eastern Europe, where it had been dammed up by the Iron Curtain.  From the other side of the globe comes a flood of Chinese pianists who, as children obedient to their parents, out-practiced everyone else.

The fraud had been suspected before 2007 among some bloggers.  Barry had overreached by releasing CDs of piano concertos, Hatto ‘playing,’ in each case with the National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Réné Köhler.  No one had heard of either.  To answer the suspicious queries of a German researcher, Barry came up with a Köhler biography; Köhler had studied in Krakow, not at the conservatory, which was closed to Jews, but at a university.  He survived the Treblinka death camp, where a German officer had crushed his left hand, only to perish in the Soviet Gulag.  The investigator checked with the university to find that there was no record of K’s attendance and not even a music department there.  Clearly Barry tossed off K’s biography without much if any advance thought; I imagine he had fun improvising his lies.

The name of the orchestra is a riot of redundancy, suggesting that Barry had a sense of humor too.  “Philharmonic” means “symphony” (the New York Philharmonic); “symphony” can be synonymous with “orchestra” (the Boston Symphony). So, in a redundancy pointed out by a blogger, Hatto, in playing with the National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, plays with the National symphony symphony symphony.

Some people doubted the Hatto marvel; others were too happy with it to give it up.  The controversy was settled by iTunes.  From the Wikepedia article on Hatto:  “When Brian Ventura, a financial analyst from Mount Vernon, New York, put the recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes credited to Hatto into his computer, the Gracenote database used by the iTunes software identified the disc not as a recording by Hatto but as one by László Simon.”  The database identifies a CD by the timings of its tracks; and the timings of Hatto and Simons CDs were identical.  This discovery led eventually to a waveform analysis of the recordings by an audio lab in England that showed them to be identical in every respect.

On other CDs, Barry forestalled detection by tampering with the timing of the pirated tracks.  He managed to speed up or slow down the Hatto version without altering the pitch, so that the Hatto performance did sound different from its original.  Another of his ploys was to steal from multiple pianists in a single piece.  For a sonata, say, consisting of three movements and three corresponding tracks, he deployed a different pianist for each track.

For some music critics, the exposé was quite embarrassing.  In 1992 a critic reviewing Yefin Bronfman’s rendition of the Rachmaninov 3rd Concerto wrote that “it lacked the sort of angst or urgency that has endeared Rachmaninov to millions” and that Bronfman sounds “oddly unmoved by Rachmaninov’s slavic idiom.”  Fifteen years later, the same critic wrote of Hatto’s release of the same recording: “stunning… truly great… among the finest on record… with a special sense of its Slavic melancholy.”  I felt kind of foolish too, having waxed so enthusiastic over her recordings.

Once Hatto gained fame from the fake recordings, the couple were very happy to be interviewed, and in their interviews retroactively slathered her new-found prestige onto her earlier career.  In a profusion of free-from fictions, she was playing for and being advised by the greatest musical figures in the mid 19th century.  As all of them were dead by this time, who was to object?  Over- the-top reviews of her concert performances surfaced.  “Her performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto in D minor was a triumph.  The technical virtuosity was compelling in its complete nonchalance but it was the blazing passion that brought the huge audience to its feet.”  (I love the “huge” audience).  Or:  Her performance of Brahms’ Paganini Variations was “dispatched in a seamless riot of ecstatic bravura with underlying deep musical feeling . . .”

In fairness to Hatto and Barry, it doesn’t seem that this was just simple, cold-blooded fraud. It was a tour de force of imagination.  The two invented a whole life for herself in an amazing amount of detail that grew with each conversation they held.  A New Yorker article by Mark Singer entitled “Fantasy for Piano” gives you a good sense of their powers of invention.  They moved so easily from fact to fiction that you can’t be sure which you are hearing.  I don’t think that they could tell the difference either, and that’s where the story gets scary.


This week in Boston has been full of patriotism.  April 19 is Patriots Day, a state holiday, in which hundreds, if not thousands, of adults reenact the battles between colonists and redcoats at Lexington and Concord.

Yesterday, I found myself downtown in the Cradle of Liberty– as Faneuil, Hall is called– where the likes of Sam Adams stirred up the rabble to revolt.  An event put on there by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had little connection with the fight for liberty; even so, given the location and the patriotic season, three national songs were rendered at the event by the comely, compact, yet cuddly Colleen: The Star Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and My Country ’tis of Thee.  She has a good voice, strong but not brassy; and sometimes during her song her smile gave off what looked like real happiness and warmth.

So, even though she threw in some dipthongs (the rawwwket s re-yeyd  gullll–luh-hair), I was moved to clap my hand over my heart and join in. However, I had only gotten to “Oh say can you see” when a woman sitting nearby  disapprovingly shook her head at me:  she wanted to hear the lovely, lyrical, lass, not my graceless (though on-pitch) voice.

If I wanted to belt out the National Anthem, and was willing to cough up an exorbitant price of admission, I could go to Fenway park. No one sings there either, but they don’t care if someone else does.

It’s tempting to end this with a rant on the passivity of the American public, who consumes the National Anthem instead of signing it themselves, just as they consume everything else.  But that wouldn’t jibe with the rest that happened at Faneuil hall. The EPA was recognizing outstanding environmental activists. One of these was the mountain manger of a ski slope in New Hampshire. He turned the Cranmore Mountain resort into a green ski slope, of all things–biodiesel fuel for the grooming equipment, snowmakers using 60 less water, biodegradable, hydraulic fluids. Or the truck driver in New Bedford who had grown up on top of a toxic waste dump and tried to keep schools from being  built on contaminated sites.

So I guess the point of the story just concerns our national songs, which aren’t that great and– like all such music– sound best when you’re playing it yourself.  So I’d rather sing along than just listen.

Sir Walter Drake

I’ve been cudgeling my brains to come up with gift ideas. These are gifts for my immediate  family, so I absolutely have to come up with something. Desperate, I turn to the Walter Drake mail order catalog.

I don’t know who Walter Drake is; have never seen a picture of him or even a fake, cursive signature. He sounds like the main character in a soap from the ’50s.

In outlook, the catalog is a certainly a vestige of the ’50s. You find there presents for people  who don’t  like things to touch each other, unless they are identical; then it’s ok. Like Rock Hudson and June Allyson in their matching pajamas and extended uniformly in widely-separate twin beds.

Eggs, which can be yucky, seem to pose a special threat to Walter Drake customers. There are advertised two devices for frying eggs decently. In both cases, you lay a hoop in the frying pan and then drop an egg into the containing hoop. As the catalog copy says, “Whites won’t run together, yolks stay plump”. “Keep whites under control, not spreading all over the pan.”  There are also two trays for carrying deviled eggs; the eggs rest in egg-shaped indentations so that they don’t slither around.

There are pads for putting between pots and pans  stacked up in a cupboard, so that they don’t scratch each other  (or even touch). But my favorite is a contraption for preserving half-eaten bananas. “Place clip on open end to slow oxidation and prevent browning.” The clip  is yellow, and resembles the upper and lower jaws of a half -bananana. You have to imagine someone first slicing a banana cleanly in halves, then eating one half, rather than starting to eat at one end, as I would, and stopping halfway through. The remaining half of the bisected banana has a clean, round end over which the clip fits. Of course, the clip won’t keep the banana from becoming mushy and brown. It’s typical of many Walter Drake gadgets that they won’t work.

There’s a shower curtain on the outside of which are stuck are 40 5″x7″ pockets for holding photos and memorabilia. “Add Personality to Your bathroom Displaying Your Favorite Photos!  KIds will have fun decorating the bathroom, and so will mom and dad!. . . easily change your display to match the seasons.” How do people come up with these ideas? And then–harder to imagine– following them through: mechanical drawings, patents, trips to a Chinese factory.

This year’s catalog dealt me a real surprise, sending me into a state of cognitive dissonance. Toward the back of the catalog, inconspicuously pictured at the bottom of the page are two dildos, each with the sprightly trade name “Don Wand” and labelled “non-returnable”. What prompted this leap from the demure ‘fifties to the explicit 21st century? How does this fit with vinyl lace tablecloths and a gadget for dividing pies into exactly equal pieces? I cannot understand how sex got into the Walter Drake catalog, but granting that it did, one can account for its particular form: there’s still no touching of different bodies; like egg whites, the  bodily fluids are kept to themselves.

Table Talk

A first from the Codger’s Corner. Used to be in a restaurant that a waiter or waitress would just walk up and ask for your order. But now there’s a whole series of statements and questions to which one must respond.  (Note that I did NOT write “litany of statements . . . .”  A  stop must be made to the the misuse of  “litany” as synonymous with “list.)”  Anway . . .oh, yes:  Perhaps you the reader can suggest some responses that are a cool, clever, but not at the expense of the unfortunate young man or woman who hasn’t found any better work than waiting on me.

First, there’s “My name is Michelle, I’ll be etc.”  I don’t see the sense of this.   In what later part of the transaction do first names matter?  It happens that this Michelle was a sweet ingenue, but as she didn’t follow her name with her phone number, what was the point?  In any case, the principle of egalitarianism that may be this country’s (and my own) one virtue requires that I tell Michelle my name is Joe.  Which is absurd.  Let’s go around the table introducing ourselves.

Later comes the question, “Is everything all right?”  This is usually asked solicitously, expressing his or her interest in my welfare. Accordingly, I should answer in an appreciative spirit of enthusiasm that the meal is indeed delicious. At the same time, I’ve been told that the question is a legalistic ploy by which the restaurant covers itself.  If the customer answers “Yes,” then the customer supposedly can’t refuse to pay the bill on account of some fault in the meal served.  Since I haven’t finished the meal, I’m not sure that it deserves payment, so I have to be guarded as well as gracious in my response, which is hard to pull off.  (By the way, I wonder if the question really  could work as  legalistic ploy.  A lawyer here would help.)

Finally, there’s the most irksome question of all:  During a pause in your eating, he or she comes up and asks, “Still working on it?”   This is supposedly more polite than “Are you finished?” but actually casts the  situation in a light unflattering both to the eater, who is working away like an animal on its prey,  and the food, whose consumption has become an unpleasant task.  Sometimes I try to indicate that eating, usually and in this particular case, was not intended by our Creator to be work, but rather a gift of refreshment for our spirits and strength.  I’d like to come up, however,  with something less didactic.  Any ideas?