Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hatto tricks

There are two Joyce Hatto scandals: (1) The late pianist’s husband, sound engineer William Barrington-Coupe, inserted sections of other pianists’ recordings, or lifted whole performances from other sources, and issued them under Hatto’s name. (2) Supposedly discerning listeners didn't catch on.

Some influential U.S. and British critics raved over Barrington-Coupe’s discs of his wife, an English pianist whose concert career was cut short when she developed ovarian cancer in the 1970s. (She died last year.) In a letter to Robert von Bahr, some of whose BIS recordings were filched, Barrington-Coupe claimed he made the substitutions when he couldn’t satisfactorily transfer cassette tapes to compact discs or when Hatto’s grunts of pain spoiled her recordings.

Gramophone magazine obtained portions of the letter after breaking the story on Feb. 15. Its coverage is at: www.gramophone.co.uk

The deception was discovered when a Gramophone critic opened a computer file of a track supposedly by Hatto, only to find the playback program identifying it as the work of another artist. Engineers then began making side-by-side comparisons of Hatto discs and commercial recordings, turning up more miscredited performances.

There’s at least one famous non-piratical precedent for splicing one artist’s work into a recording issued under another artist’s name: the 1952 EMI recording of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler and featuring Kirsten Flagstad as Isolde (EMI Classics 67626, four discs). The aging soprano was unable to reach some high notes; so the producer, Walter Legge, “backed up” Flagstad with the voice of his wife-to-be, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The ruse went unnoticed, or at least unmentioned, until a London newspaper exposed it two years after the release.

Splicing together bits of several performances by the same artist(s) has been commonplace ever since audio production moved from direct-to-disc 78s to tape recordings. The conductor Otto Klemperer, on first encountering these studio touch-ups, declared the practice “ein Schweinerei” (a dirty trick, in polite translation), Legge recalled in “On and Off the Record,” the memoir published after his death by Schwarzkopf.

Splicing remains standard practice in commercial recordings. Even “live” discs – audio and video – are commonly collations of the best bits from several performances.

Should the critics taken in by the Hatto discs be embarrassed? To a point: They should have been suspicious of the “miracle” of an elderly, infirm pianist playing finger-busters at the level of a Yefim Bronfman (one of the pianists whose work was purlioned), not to mention displaying radically different tone and technique from one recording to the next.

I wonder, though, how many critics – even piano mavens – hearing recordings of six pianists in the same repertory, could correctly identify just one? For that matter, how many pianists could do it?