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MusicWeb Reviewer’s Log: March 2007

Reviewer: Patrick C Waller

Like most music-lovers, the name of Joyce Hatto has never been very far from my thoughts recently despite never having heard one of "her" discs. I was aware of her reputation and the Ravel set - now thought to be played by Roger Muraro - had made its way onto my electronic wish-list some time before the story broke in the middle of February. A lot has since been written on MusicWeb and elsewhere addressing many aspects of the case, most remarkably Christopher Howell’s article reproducing correspondence from Joyce and her husband William Barrington-Coupe. The Daily Telegraph newspaper published Barrington-Coupe’s initial denial, and the Gramophone and The Times have written about his subsequent "confession".

As far as I am aware, in terms of scale, this is the first case of its kind. No doubt there have been plenty of more minor infringements of copyright and specific cases of piracy. In this instance there seems to have been a programme of highly effective deception which had gone undetected for some considerable time. I would suggest that the music world needs to look outwardly as well as inwardly in learning lessons for the future. I have been involved in medical research for well over twenty years and it may surprise some music-lovers to learn that fraud is a significant problem in that arena. And there are some interesting parallels to be drawn.

The kind of fraud at issue here – plagiarism – certainly exists in medical research but in most cases it does not directly lead to harm to patients. Complete fabrication of data is much more concerning – for example inventing data to show that a treatment works when in all probability it doesn’t – and perhaps the worst crime. It now seems that the late-flowering recording career of Joyce Hatto was effectively fabricated.

The first parallel I would like to draw between the two scenarios is the issue of detection of fraud because in both cases it would seem to be more difficult than might be expected. It is always easy in hindsight but the fact remains that many reviewers, the collective quality of whom cannot seriously be doubted, did not spot the Hatto deception by listening to the discs. In medical research there is a system called "peer review" which takes place before publication – it is well-recognised that this usually fails to detect fraud perpetrated by someone who is reasonably clever. In the Hatto case there were rumours of a scam flying around for a year or two deriving from internet chat rooms. From the ones I have seen, the main basis seemed to be that it would be impossible for someone with cancer to play like this over such a long period of time. Sitting here now, this might seem quite a reasonable basis to raise a flag but "cancer" is a diverse disease and there are genuine stories of people who have battled against it and achieved something remarkable. In the same way, the fact that a medical researcher seems to find patients for studies more easily and complete his research more quickly than others is, by itself, not a good basis to accuse someone of cheating; unless the numbers involved are a long way out of line they could simply be more industrious than most.

So it is my view that reviewers – collectively or individually – shouldn’t be beating themselves up about not spotting the problem earlier. Perhaps we can expect some copycats and if (this is a big "if") the music world wants to facilitate early detection of occasional major programmes of deception, it will have to set up a system designed to do so. On the other hand, though, no one should kid themselves that reviewing is fundamentally an objective process or that they are uninfluenced by what is going on around them. Indeed there is a whole set of statistical theory - known as Bayesian statistics - which is based on adjusting prior expectations in the light of new evidence, the precepts of which are probably relevant to just about anything. The medical research world tries to get round the problem of preconceptions by "blinding" observers – even for relatively objective measurements such as blood pressure. Somehow I doubt we will see this widely applied in music criticism – for one thing it would require a lot of effort to set up.

A further parallel comes from consideration of what to do when fraud is suspected and the flag is raised. Here the medical world has systems in place that are used to conduct a thorough quasi-judicial investigation and there are associated powers – e.g. to strike a doctor off the register. So, providing a case gets into the system - in the past some have been swept under the carpet - there is a clear mechanism to deal with it. In the Hatto case, it is possible that civil and/or criminal proceedings might ultimately be brought and, as been pointed out on the bulletin board by Alistair Hinton, the MCPS-PRS might be taking an interest. But what has happened so far is that interested parties, mainly the specialist media and music-lovers have themselves conducted an investigation largely using the internet as a tool for gathering and disseminating information. If we go back only a decade or so ago this would not have been possible and I feel we need to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages that it has brought. Most obviously, the internet has brought speed – things have moved very quickly indeed and, generally, this is positive. Credibility is a very big issue though and it would be easy for someone to have some "fun" and pour oil on our wounds. Of course, everyone knows you can’t believe everything you read in a newspaper or chat-room but what can you believe and how can you be sure who is saying it? Only once discs have been compared by identifiable, credible people using the technologies available can we really be sure what is going on. This is a time-consuming process and it seems unlikely that it will be undertaken systematically for all the relevant discs – after all, who is going to pay?

Finally in respect of Joyce Hatto, there seems to be little doubt that the main reason why reviews of "her" discs were generally very positive was that clever choices were made. But it is also hard not to wonder to what extent they might have been liked as a result of what was done to them electronically. I confess that I hadn’t been aware before that you could speed up or slow down a recording without changing pitch and presume this is a digital age phenomenon. How much of this kind of thing goes on in everyday recording and what is legitimate? I certainly wouldn’t be impressed to find out that what I am listening to was actually played at a slower speed than I am then hearing it at, even though the result might be greater accuracy. What is more, I am pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to tell. There have even been suggestions on the bulletin board of a system for vetting discs before they are released. What might be more practical would be for the industry to try to reach agreement on what is and is not acceptable practice - outside obvious legal considerations – i.e. a voluntary code. Record companies would hopefully sign up to it and breaches of the code would primarily be embarrassing and therefore potentially commercially damaging. Again, there are parallels to be found in other walks of life. An example of the kind of thing such a code would need to address would be the incident cited by Mr. Barrington-Coupe as his initial inspiration for stepping out of line – the famous high notes in Furtwängler’s 1952 recording of Tristan and Isolde which Kirsten Flagstad couldn’t hit and which Elisabeth Schwarzkopf provided. Should that be considered acceptable? Certainly, in my view, it should at least be openly acknowledged. I have the recent GROC incarnation of this recording issued almost fifty years later. This is now mentioned in the booklet essay but my understanding is that it was not originally acknowledged. In drawing up any such code the main purpose would probably be to make sure the listener knows what they are actually hearing. That’s what it’s all about – "doing what it says on the tin" – Hattogate being a rather extreme case of well … the opposite.

The most striking new disc I have heard this month by some margin is of the Neruda songs by Peter Lieberson sung by his late wife Lorraine Hunt Lieberson which was a February Recording of the Month. I can only echo Anne Ozorio’s great enthusiasm for both the music and performance – given live in Boston about six months before Hunt Lieberson’s premature death. Anne wrote that anyone complaining about the brevity of the disc - there are no couplings - "needs a soul transplant". I am tempted to suggest that anyone who doesn’t feel moved by the disc should also go on the waiting list.

The music of the Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas who died in 1949 has recently done quite well in the recording studio after years of neglect. I am just starting to catch up with some of it and have been really enjoying the Greek Dances. There are 36 of these, performed with panache by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Nikos Christodoulou. The recorded sound is stunning and presentation by BIS very handsome, and, as Rob Barnett said in his review, this seems an ideal place to start exploring the composer’s work.

Another composer who seems to be doing quite well is Alan Hovhaness although there is still an awful lot of his music to be recorded. I recently came across a First Edition CD of his Concerto No 7 for Orchestra, Symphony No 15 Silver Pilgrimage and Magnificat which was reviewed on MusicWeb a couple of years ago. These are performances by the Louisville Orchestra under Robert S. Whitney which were made between 1953 and 1963. The earliest of them was the dynamic and attractive concerto and, apart from a bit of tape hiss, few allowances need to be made for the recording sound.

The Finnish composer Rautavaara is perhaps best known for his Concerto for Birds and Orchestra Cantus Arcticus, a most attractive work dating from 1972. A more recent Clarinet Concerto (2001) is coupled with this on an Ondine disc (ODE 1041-2) which I have been enjoying a great deal. Richard Stoltzman is the soloist and Leif Segerstam conducts the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra.

A couple of discs I have both reviewed and enjoyed recently could hardly be more different. Jean Francaix’s suite for Oboe and Orchestra L’Horloge de Flore is a longstanding favourite of mine and is beautifully performed here by Lajos Lencsés. The couplings too are delightful, particularly the trio for oboe, bassoon and piano. In contrast, The Reluctant Masquerade, an opera by James Stevens, a British composer best known for his film music, is a gory tale but it is most imaginatively set and contain some surprises if you care to download it from the Pristine Classical website for a mere 6 Euros.

Last month I wrote some initial thoughts about the Naxos Music Library. Fellow reviewer Tony Haywood has much more experience of it and posted some thoughts on the Bulletin Board. The Library seems to be growing at a very rapid pace with many new discs being added every working day and new labels joining all the time. I quoted a figure of 11,500 discs but this has already been revised to 15,000. One real discovery I have made here is the piano music of Norwegian composer Harald Sæverud – there are six volumes of this on the Naxos label but they are otherwise only available in Norway. Einar Steen-Nokleberg is the pianist providing the same kind of effective advocacy he did in his complete Greig recordings. Come on Naxos – this needs wider circulation as a boxed set. I have also been exploring some parts of the Chandos catalogue I had so far failed to appreciate – for example the film music of William Alwyn. As suggested last month, it is particularly good to be able to read a review on MusicWeb and hear the whole disc immediately. For example, the First Symphony of Boris Tchaikovsky – the kind of disc I am interested in but perhaps not quite enough to purchase without first hearing it. My credit card statement arrived today reminding me that the monthly cost of the library is 15 dollars or £7.89 and it is well worth it – the perfect distraction from Hattogate.

Patrick C Waller

 

 


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