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A “Hatto Original”
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
12 Etudes d’exécution transcendante S.139 [65:09]
László Simon (piano)
rec. August 1986, Beethovensaal, Hanover
BIS-CD-369 [65:05]



This performance was issued in 2000 as the work of Joyce Hatto on Concert Artist/Fidelio CACD-9084-2. Later versions substituted two of the Etudes – see below.

So this is it. The one that let the cat out of the bag. The most famous record by the pianist everyone must have heard of by now.

As all the music-loving world and his wife know, Andrew Rose’s tests proved that ten tracks on the “Hatto” came from Simon, Feux follets from Nojima and Chasse-neige from a pianist still unidentified. With some time stretching/shrinking and a changed sound-image into the bargain. But, just as I was lumbering up to take on the Simon/“Hatto” comparison, Farhan Malik announced on his Pianophiles forum the discovery of an early “Hatto” which was a straightforward rip-off from the Simon in all its 12 tracks. Malik is aware of two copies of this first version.

When I started my comparisons I found that I seem to have an intermediate version. Feux follets is certainly Nojima (see review), but Chasse-neige is equally certainly Simon. I checked numerous details but the big give-away is a clumsy edit – by BIS – which adds a seventh beat to bar 25. The sound picture of the Simon tracks has been changed radically, that of the Nojima track much less. The timings are identical to the sources – Nojima as well as Simon. So the sound-stretching/shrinking had not yet begun. I am basing myself on the timings of the actual music, disregarding the silence at the beginning and end of each track.

According to the liner, the “Hatto” was published in 2000. This would have been the unadulterated Simon version. My copy has a publication date of 2002 on the back and the alleged recording dates are from 1990 and 2001. No doubt the latter was intended as an “explanation” to anyone who noticed that the performance of Feux follets was different. Does the definitive version claim even more recent recording sessions?

How widespread are these variant versions? We can make the assumption that few of these CDs were factory made – perhaps none at all until things started rolling near the end – but simply run off the computer when a copy was needed. We might also suppose that the Hattifiers were continually fiddling with the recordings in their computer. Each copy, or batch of copies, would simply reflect the state of play at the time.

Here is my original review. I am leaving the name of Hatto unchanged since I wish to discuss afterwards the extent to which the changed sound-picture might alter our perception of the performances. 

The cover of this disc has a cartoon of Liszt which I feel I ought to recognise (it’s unacknowledged and has an indecipherable squiggle of a signature at the bottom); the Liszt of popular legend, his arms and fingers flailing like octopuses, the whole keyboard buckling and rising like a ship breaking up in a storm, while the old hypocrite has a beatific smile and a halo over his head. This image of the composer dies hard, but listen to the words of Stanford who, as a young and impressionable young man in his early twenties, heard Liszt play at a semi-private gathering and recalled the event many years later:


"He was the very reverse of all my anticipations, which inclined me, perhaps from the caricatures familiar to me from my boyhood, to expect to see an inspired acrobat, with high-action arms, and wild locks falling on the keys. I saw instead a dignified, composed figure, who sat like a rock, never indulging in a theatrical gesture, or helping out his amazingly full tone with the splashes and crashes of a charlatan, producing all his effects with the simplest means, and giving the impression of such ease that the most difficult passages seemed like child’s play" (Pages from an Unwritten Diary, Edward Arnold 1914, pp.148-9).


So how do you play Liszt? Well, I studied certain of his works (not the Transcendental Studies) with the redoubtable Ilonka Deckers-Küszler, who was most insistent that this music was to be played with the same respect for the text you would think right for a Beethoven sonata, without rhythmic distortions, manic rubato or any other playing to the gallery. In other words, you play it like the good music it is. Furthermore, Deckers-Küszler did not claim this as a discovery of her own; she was taught it at the Conservatoire of her native Budapest in the early years of the 20th Century, and there were teachers there who had it from Liszt.


Unfortunately, Ilonka Deckers-Küszler was a somewhat mysterious character who never committed any of her playing to disc; she felt, however, that her ideas were preserved in the series of Liszt recordings made by her tragically short-lived pupil Edith Farnadi for Westminster. Alas, these have never been readily accessible and I have never yet succeeded in hearing any of them, or even in knowing exactly which works were recorded. Also of interest would be the Liszt recordings by Louis Kentner, who studied at Budapest Conservatoire at about the same time as Deckers-Küszler. Again, I have never succeeded in tracking them down.


But what has all this to do with Joyce Hatto? Quite simply, that she too sits down at the piano and, with technical nonchalance but a complete lack of any virtuoso fuss, just gets on with playing the pieces "straight", like the good music they are. Whether she learnt this from some past teacher or whether her instincts led her this way I know not, nor does it matter much. She is in that royal line of Liszt interpreters who believe this is great music and is to be played as such.


Now, what you won’t get from Hatto is the sort of filigree passage-work that makes you gasp at the sheer crystalline evenness of it all. Her passage-work is good, but it is not part of her agenda to parade its "goodness" as an end in itself. In other words, if it’s Liszt the circus-master you’re after, you won’t get it. But if you have resisted Liszt because of his showy image, then these wonderfully musicianly performances might make you change your mind.


If there is any shortcoming, it is that Hatto tends more towards healthy robustness than to winsome poetry. The booklet reprints 1956 notes by Humphrey Searle, according to whom Harmonies du Soir "conjures up the atmosphere of a peaceful evening with the distant echoes of bells". Here Hatto, for better or for worse, is full-toned and intense.


The recording dates are eleven years apart. The sound is fairly consistent nonetheless, warm and pleasing if not especially lifelike. All the same, if you care about Liszt the composer you should not miss this disc.


I hope it will be noted that this review, while of course favourable, is a little short of being a rave. The adjective “great” is used only in conjunction with the music. The disc was also reviewed for MusicWeb by Jonathan Woolf. He, too, was favourable, but slightly preferred another Concert Artist production, played by Sergio Fiorentino. If it was played by Fiorentino, but that’s another story …


On the original disc, Simon is heard to play with a powerful, somewhat bass-oriented tone. Perhaps this is not surprising from a pupil of Claudio Arrau. However, since his own brief introductory note stresses his primary concern with Liszt’s “visionary conceptions”, this massive, full sound was probably part of him from the beginning. He also studied with Ilona Kabos who came from the same background as Ilonka Deckers-Küszler, which may explain his preference for musicality over virtuoso display. Not that his technique is a mean one, I hasten to say.


The Hattifiers have lightened the bass, rendering the whole sound-picture more distant, more fanciful, maybe more lady-like. Heard thus, Simon is made to parade a seemingly calmer mastery of the music. Several times, as I followed the real Simon with the “Hatto”, I though at first the performance was a different one, even a better one. Then, as the various landmarks I had noted came up – details of timings, accents, phrasing – I realized that the performances were in fact the same.


The chosen sound-picture is to some extent a personal decision by the sound engineer. Jürgen Redlinger and Gregor Szöke, respectively the producer and engineer, could have presented a recording with similar characteristics to the “Hatto” if they had wished. So what did Simon actually sound like?


Well, Redlinger and Szöke had heard him. If they were doing their job properly, they would have attempted to reproduce the tonal qualities they heard. Since Simon approved the results, we must assume they did so.


The trouble is, the lighter, airier sound you hear on the “Hatto” is closer to my idea of what Liszt should sound like. Others may not agree. Nojima and his engineers apparently see it like me. The sound of his performance barely needed modification to fit the new context.


Another question concerns the substituted performances. Merely a ploy to put people off the scent, or a genuine attempt to improve the product? As it happens, Feux follets is the weakest performance of the twelve. Alongside Nojima’s miraculous sparkle and grace it is revealed as over-pedalled and inelegant. The Nojima performance brings added value to the cycle as a whole. Jonathan Woolf had slight reservations over Chasse-neige. Given that a morbid sensitivity to criticism is another leitmotif of the Hatto affair, could this have been enough to send the Hattifiers scurrying to replace it? And so, with a little judicious adjustment of the tempi and a further tweak to the sound-picture, an excellent if occasionally heavy-handed cycle of Transcendentals was changed into a better one. Did Hatto & Co. feel in some crazy way that they had made it their own?


Still, if we want to hear the Transcendentals played their way we must look for a pianist who really plays them like that. Nojima, a reluctant recorder, could be our man. All the same, Simon’s is no mean achievement. He can fairly claim to have come close to his stated wish “to work out both … their visionary character in the tonal sphere as well as the orchestral character of their structure”. How does he play them today, I wonder?


Christopher Howell




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