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MusicWeb International Obituary

JOYCE HATTO (1928-2006)


With the death of the veteran pianist Joyce Hatto, at her home in Royston late into the evening of Thursday 29 June, following a thirty-six year battle with cancer, an era comes to an end in British music.

Joyce, born in 1928, grew up in North West London, and, rather than go down the traditional Academy/College route of her peers, studied music privately. For her models she took Rachmaninov and Mark Hambourg. And for her teacher the Russian-Jewish émigré Serge Krish, a sometime pupil of Busoni in Berlin - but thought of by the British Establishment as an essentially ‘light music’ man, more in touch with Tauber’s Schubert than Schnabel’s. Under the influence of Krish she developed her passion for Bach, Beethoven and Liszt. And through him gained admittance into the London ‘White Russian’ circle. ‘I became friendly with Benno Moiseiwitsch and I was made very welcome in that family and the whole group of quite exceptional musicians who surrounded it’.

Following the war she went to Ilona Kabos and Zbigniew Drzewiecki (in Warsaw). Took advice from Cortot, Haskil and Richter. And sought insight from Boulanger, Hindemith and Seiber. Cortot left a particular impression. ‘To him being a musician meant making music, communicating music, and bringing the composer and his music to life.’

During the 1950s she did her bit for the British scene (promoting Bax, Bliss and Rawsthorne among others), as well as establishing a reputation as a Liszt and Chopin player - her marathons including the first public account of the complete Beethoven-Liszt symphony transcriptions. Appraising her work, the Chopin scholar Arthur Hedley recalled of one venture:

‘Joyce Hatto […] is unusual, rather unique among English pianists, in understanding the darker side of the composer. She does not strive for pretty effects and her projection of Chopin as a "big" composer sets her aside from most of her contemporaries. Her often quite astonishingly ample technique always allows her additional scope in conveying her interpretive views. It is a considerable achievement of will that she never allows her own forceful personality to intrude on that of the composer.’

Up to 1979, when deteriorating health (and an un-gallant critic) forced her retirement from the public stage, Joyce devoted herself to recitals at the Wigmore Hall and South Bank Centre, international touring, and private teaching. Her trips abroad, of which she had fond memories, took her especially to the Iron Curtain countries (including the Soviet Union) and Scandinavia – critics admiring not only her facility, musicality and large-scale thinking but also her ‘ability to coax so many different sounds from her instrument’.

Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the spring of 1970 (at the time of her Abbey Road taping of Bax’s Symphonic Variations with Vernon Handley and the Guildford Philharmonic), Joyce spent the final third of her life oscillating between recovery, relapse and recording, battling to the end, refusing to accept defeat. The CDs she released on the Concert Artist label (founded in 1952 by her husband and producer, William Barrington-Coupe) - over a hundred since 1989 - bear witness to superhuman energy and diversity of repertory. Bach’s Forty Eight. The complete sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Prokofiev. Cycles of solo Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninov. The Chopin-Godowsky Studies. Hindemith’s Ludus tonalis. The concertos of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninov. Bax’s Symphonic Variations with Vernon Handley and the Guildford Philharmonic. Some wonderful Scarlatti. All conveyed with integrity, fine taste, and high definition polish. Exceptional tonal quality, shaping a Classical line, elegant phrase endings, knowing how to place and time a Romantic climax were the hallmarks of Joyce’s pianism. Along with some of the most beautiful trills and ornaments in the annals of recording. Not all she committed to tape or hard disk has yet been mastered and some works she simply never got round to, obstructed by either lack of funding or publishers unwilling to do favours. Vaughan Williams’s Piano Concerto, for instance. No matter. There’s enough - the Indian Summer of an artist on a mission to bequeath everything within her allocated time. Close to the end, 8 June, William wrote: ‘She is desperate to make one final visit to the studio (probably over the weekend) to re-do some of the Songs without Words, some late Liszt, and a section of Beethoven’s Op 81a. She will have to play from a wheelchair as she really can’t walk now’. The only time Joyce saw one of her girlhood heroes – Hambourg - he similarly had come to be in a wheelchair – which didn’t prevent him, she told Burnett James in 1973, from tackling a ‘magnificent’ Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy and the Chopin ballades. I wonder if the memory returned to haunt her that last weekend before the microphones.

The tragedy of Joyce’s career was that so many for so long failed, or refused, to credit her achievement. In her youth she may have appeared with Sabata, Beecham, Kletzki, Martinon and others. At nineteen she may have been the London Philharmonic’s rehearsal pianist for Furtwängler’s post-war Beethoven Nine at the Royal Albert Hall (25 March 1948). And Neville Cardus may have called her ‘a British pianist to challenge the German supremacy in Beethoven and Brahms’. But she was not to become a BBC ‘star’ (‘never asked to perform for them once,’ we’re told). No recording moguls took her up. The Establishment looked away. The London orchestras cold-shouldered her. The media remained indifferent or cynical. She said it didn’t matter, the music business was ‘a jungle’ anyway – but the hurt ran deep.

Not until the renaissance of her very last years was this tide of dismissal/negative feeling to be checked – for which she had to thank online exposure, a generation of open-minded pianophiles, and a landmark appraisal in 2004 from Frank Siebert in the German magazine Fono Forum: ‘she makes music without imposed superlatives’.

In the wake of Jeremy Nicholas’s coverage in Gramophone and International Piano at the beginning of 2006, BBC Radio 3’s CD Review broadcast an appreciation by Andrew McGregor. After listening to Beethoven Op 109, he said, he just ‘had to hear more: such technical ease, musical certainty and instinctive, unfussy rubato, never mind the tonal quality and unhurried authority’. Among the tracks he featured was the finale of the Tchaikovsky B flat minor Concerto, made with René Köhler in 1997. ‘Undeniably impressive […] that characterful musical personality, that’s as much the composer’s as Hatto’s, it seems to me… I suspect the authority that comes across in so much of this playing stems from an essential musical humility … and […] rock-solid technical foundation.’ ‘It would be hard not to be interested in Joyce Hatto’s story,’ he reflected, ‘but her recordings speak for themselves. It does sound as though we have been missing out on a major British pianist’ (8 April 2006).

It’s a view shared by various of her colleagues. ‘I suppose what I am attracted to is the simplicity and wisdom of her approach, plus a Gallic restraint in pedalling and sentiment,’ admires James Lisney. ‘A refreshing change from the style of playing much lauded today. There is a really astonishing story in her playing […] the technical honesty is a wonder to hear.’

Her near-contemporary, Ivan Davis of the University of Miami – in his day student and friend of Horowitz - thinks of her as the British ‘national treasure’ of an era. ‘Her legacy is monumental […] I know of no pianist in the world who is her superior musically or technically. I think she gives one an audio blueprint of the score-never changing the composer’s instructions but setting them forth though her personal vision – both poetic and passionate.’ He lists among his ‘many favourites CDs’ the ‘daredevil’ Mephisto Waltz, the ‘darkly dramatic’ Chasse-neige from the Liszt Transcendentals and the ‘small’ Schubert A major Sonata, with its ‘sublime simplicity’. As for the 2003 75th anniversary remake of the Chopin Études, they set in his opinion ‘probably the new standard’. ‘I think she will have extraordinary posthumous acclaim.’

On the strength of just a single Concert Artist sampler [CACD 92302], the American composer, pianist and critic Jed Distler values her as ‘one of the greatest, most consistently satisfying pianists in history’.

And, as we write, a posting on the Yahoo Pianophiles group by Donald Manildi, Curator of the International Piano Archives at Maryland, confirms that of the 60 or so CDs he’s auditioned so far, he has, ‘with only one or two exceptions,’ ‘yet to encounter one […] that is less than outstanding’. Among those he thinks ‘especially remarkable’ are Beethoven’s Appassionata, the Liszt Transcendentals and Paganini Études, the Chopin Études (later version) and Préludes , Schumann’s Toccata and Davidsbündlertänze, the Rachmaninov Preludes, Brahms’s Handel and Paganini Variations, and ‘all’ the Mozart and Prokofiev sonatas (3 July 2006).

In old age a slight, drawn figure of girlish voice and impeccable courtesies, pianistically the great-grand-daughter of Liszt and grand-daughter of Busoni and Paderewski, poetically the niece of Rachmaninov and Hambourg, Joyce Hatto was an artist of strong opinions and self-belief, a lady who bore life’s kicks, the rumour-mongering and hate mail, with noble fortitude. Urgeist before Urtext, spirit before letter, composer before editor or performer, was her grail. ‘Hatto doesn’t matter, Mozart does, Beethoven does’. ‘Forget Hatto, remember Bach’. Never mind about the limelight, get the message across, ‘draw’ people in, ‘play what the composer has taken so much trouble to write down’. ‘What it really takes to be a pianist,’ she believed, ‘is courage, character, and the capacity to work. As interpreters, we are not important; we are just vehicles. 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. That’s the way it is.’

Ateş Orga


Joyce Hatto. Born London 5 September 1928. Married 8 September 1956 William Barrington-Coupe. Died Royston, Hertfordshire 29 June 2006.


Online Reading

Burnett James [1973], ‘Joyce Hatto - A Pianist of Extraordinary Personality and Promise’,

MusicWeb International, 3 March 2003

Richard Dyer [2005], ‘A hidden jewel comes to light’, Boston Globe, 21 August 2005

Ateş Orga [2006], ‘Joyce Hatto: The Artist, The Recordings’, MusicWeb International, 30 January 2006

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