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The Hatto Affair: why it should concern us all by Evan Dickerson

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Anyone who pays much attention to the world of classical music cannot have missed the furore that has erupted in recent days over the authenticity of some of Joyce Hatto’s recordings. This is a story that will run and run. By no means are all the facts known, but so far four recordings have been proven to be not played by Hatto. They are:

  • Godowsky (CACD9147-2) some of which are actually played by Carlo Grante on the Altarus label
  • Liszt (CACD9259-2) actually played by László Simon on BIS
  • Rachmaninov Concertos (CACD9217, 9218) actually played by Bronfman under Salonen on Sony
  • Brahms Piano Concerto 2 (CACD80012) actually played by Ashkenazy under Haitink on Decca

Someone with only marginal knowledge of the recording industry may ask what all the fuss is in fact about. To put it at its simplest this is a case that centres on plagiarism and copyright infringement. Much as any author is declared the copyright holder of their work, unless they sell the rights to another party, a musician’s intellectual property is founded in the interpretation they make of a score. Any company recording the performance would own the rights to copy, distribute and possibly directly sell that performance by any means they see fit. Consequently, any recording that is pirated and passed off as another’s work is open to question and possible legal pursuit on two sizable fronts.

The Hatto/Concert Artist case highlights several issues that comment to a large degree upon how recordings are received and listened to these days. In tandem with this, it is worth commenting at length on the role that technology has played in the promotion of Hatto’s cause and the uncovering of the deception that has taken place.

With the multitude of recordings to choose from in the core repertoire, and increasingly in other repertoire also, the public and critics are no longer forced into directly comparing any newcomer to one of a select few alternatives. Reviewers, no matter how knowledgeable, cannot know all of the available recordings of a piece so intimately that a pirated version could immediately be identified. That at least three of the pirated recordings are by major pianists on major labels may suggest some audacity in the attempt to deceive in this case. I wonder if, at least in part, the success of any deception with regard to recordings relies upon how closely we actually listen to the recordings today. How many instances can you recall where you have listened to a CD only once, or with minimal attention? Many of us simply do not have the time to give to music that it demands if we were to really listen to it.

The internet, and specifically, played a large part in the initial drawing of attention to Hatto’s recorded legacy as a showcase for her artistic qualities. Favourable review followed favourable review. There might well have been mutterings on various web-based news groups that somehow Musicweb was party to the scam, a thought I not only doubt in the strongest terms but also resent being levelled. Much of the music criticism establishment chooses to treat some web authors as little better than idle dilettantes who write for their own amusement. I, however, have enough faith in my colleagues’ opinions to feel that not only were they right to express those they did, including about the plagiarised discs, but that the opinions are still largely valid. Surely if one finds a pianist’s playing to be fine (or indeed, poor), that opinion should still stand if only the name printed on the disc is altered rather than any of the interpretation itself?

I have not up to now written about the Hatto recordings, but I think we all owe Gramophone, and Pristine Audio our thanks for exposing the deception. That Gramophone threw down a gauntlet in challenging anyone with suspicions about the authenticity of Hatto’s recordings to come forward with evidence and that certainly opened the field. That no one did initially produce any evidence seemed to stop all speculation before it really got going. That one of their own reviewers raised the first seriously credible alarm bell courtesy of a computer and ITunes certainly makes for good copy in a story such as this. The level of analytical listening required has moved far beyond what the human ear can cope with, which explains why many people were only left clutching at suspicions rather than hard evidence.

It did not stop me, for one, wondering about several aspects that did not seem to wholly add up. Someone in full health might be hard pushed to summon the stamina and physical effort required for much of Hatto’s recorded repertoire – which seems to contain a remarkable number of composers’ complete piano output. All this from a pianist forced to recede from the public stage due to cancer? Different people are affected in different ways by the cruel disease, and I do not for a moment belittle her suffering. It might just be credible that she could record so much, given that (as far as I know) few details are known of Joyce Hatto’s cancer and the state of its remission.

Reflect that in the case of a Pollini, Richter, or Michelangeli even, they were heard in public and seen to perform too. Their artistry might be mythical in one sense but it is a myth that is based on the live experience being available for direct comparison. Joyce Hatto’s total stage absence left nothing for recent meaningful comparative judgements to be made against – a unique point in her case that easily aided the furtherance of this deception, it could be claimed.

In the case of the orchestra and conductor employed for some Hatto recordings, there was scant information to be had other than that found from Concert Artist on Musicweb. My general assumption was that the National Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra was a session orchestra assembled for the recording, a not uncommon practice amongst smaller and budget-price labels.

Rene Köhler, the conductor, proved harder to exactly pin down. No one I asked on the Continent or in the UK really recalled hearing the name other than in connection with Hatto’s recordings or ever hearing him live. There are many conductors though who are available for guest or session work, where interpretive prowess is required second to mere competence. Might such a conductor have existed, but fail to register in memory of a single person? Strange then that just such a person could be chosen to head recordings attracting increasing levels of press interest. Yet, we have Concert Artist’ supplied biography, which it transpires must be taken as carefully crafted fiction. If Köhler is in fact Salonen or Haitink, then who else might he be?

There could be some who think the Hatto case a one-off incident, and of its type it is the most serious recent one I know of. But it is not the first time that record companies have passed off one product as another. The practice of budget labels rebranding their releases and renaming their artists in the 1980s and 1990s has long been known, as this posting to a news list proves. Historically, minor infringements that have come to light include Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Isolde’s high Cs for Flagstad in the EMI Furtwängler recording, which Walter Legge sanctioned.

At the core of any deception is a betrayal of trust, and record companies play us for fools when they intentionally seek to deceive. That our honest love of music is treated with such scorn is one aspect of it, but the more deep-seated damage that is to be done can only be told over time. Musicians’ careers could suffer by association with any notorious case? Record label executives are likely to find themselves persona non grata in the honest music world. And the financial future of any label that takes this course must look very shaky indeed. In the United States, the world’s single largest classical record market, they have only just started to wake up to Joyce Hatto’s recordings. As this news spreads Stateside any hope of breaking new distribution ground can be written off.

For me though, the most harsh betrayal of trust is that made towards Hatto’s true legacy – her real recordings. I have only recently started listening to the complete Mozart piano sonatas, and they are as far as I know genuinely hers, and fine readings also. That these will have to be painstakingly pored over and questioned so that we get the definitive opinion on their authenticity should not be something that has to happen. But we are owed an apology and full explanation, even if it means uncovering something of Hatto’s own complicity in the deception along the way. There has been no comment as yet from the record company, and it might ever be thus.

A dark period for the industry without doubt, but with honesty and integrity of product other companies will yet keep our confidence in their operations high, and the tills ringing with our purchases. I certainly hope so.

Evan Dickerson

20 February 2007


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