Grand music hoax: Plagiarist confesses

A fascinating, tragic hoax has unraveled in the classical music world. Dozens of performances by relatively unknown — but great — pianists were pirated, credited to a great pianist dying of cancer, and made internet hits.

The hoax that lives by the internet, dies by the internet, Jesus might have said. A music critic loaded one of the released discs into his iPod list on his computer, and it identified it as being performed by someone else.

Joyce Hatto had retired due to ovarian cancer in the 1970s, but started releasing recordings made at home in 1989. This was not unusual — her husband was a recording engineer. The quietly-released, small-label recordings got good reviews and a faithful audience. As time went on, the recordings became more ambitious, and the quality of the piano playing of the dying woman audibly increased.

Questions arose earlier this year.  

An article on the opposite-editorial page of the New York Times yesterday summed up the story well: “Shoot the Piano Player,” by Dennis Dutton of the University of Canterbury.

Little wonder that when she at last succumbed to her cancer last year at age 77 — recording Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26, “Les Adieux,” from a wheelchair in her last days — The Guardian called her “one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced.” Nice touch, that, playing Beethoven’s farewell sonata from a wheelchair. It went along with her image in the press as an indomitable spirit with a charming personality — always ready with a quote from Shakespeare, Arthur Rubinstein or Muhammad Ali. She also had a clear vision of the mission of musical interpreters, telling The Boston Globe: “Our job is to communicate the spiritual content of life as it is presented in the music. Nothing belongs to us; all you can do is pass it along.”

Now it has become brutally clear that “passing along” is exactly what she was up to. Earlier this month, a reader of the British music magazine Gramophone told one of its critics, Jed Distler, that something odd happened when he slid Ms. Hatto’s CD of Liszt’s “Transcendental Études” into his computer. His iTunes library, linked to a catalogue of about four million CDs, immediately identified it as a recording by the Hungarian pianist Laszlo Simon. Mr. Distler then listened to both recordings, and found them identical.

Hatto’s husband confessed. William Barrington-Coupe is a recording engineer, and was listed as his wife’s engineer and producer, and ran the business side of the CD sales. He explained how he slipped into plagiarism, fraud and hoax, in a letter to one of the pianists whose playing was plagiarized, Robert von Bahr, a letter which was released to the British music magazine Gramophone:

Although she kept up a rigorous practice regime, Barrington-Coupe says that Hatto was suffering more than she admitted, even to herself. Recording session after recording session was marred by her many grunts of pain as she played, and her husband was at a loss to know how to cover the problem passages.

Until, that is, he remembered the story of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf covering the high notes for Kirsten Flagstad in the famous EMI recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Surely something similar could apply here, he reasoned. He began searching for pianists whose sound and style were similar to that of his wife, and once he had found them he would insert small patches of their recordings to cover his wife’s grunts.

As he grew more adept at the practice, he began to take longer sections to ease the editing process, and discovered, he says, by accident how to digitally stretch the time of the source recordings to disguise the sound. He would, he says, use Hatto’s performances as a blueprint and source recordings which were along the same lines (Laszlo, for instance, shared a teacher with his wife and so, Barington-Coupe says, had the same kind of style and technique).

It is a sad story, of an artist suffering from fatal disease, of recording technology making minor deception possible, and then major deception; it is a story of romance and larceny.

At the same time, the music world fairly buzzes with a rare opportunity. (Listen to this report from BBC/NPR’s The World.) Tracks from unrecognized pianists were hailed by critics. Who are those pianists? Where are they now? The incident demonstrates that there are many very good to brilliant pianists laboring away in undeserved obscurity around the world. A few of them may earn fitting recognition as the plagiarist reveals who they are.

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