The Revolution Label: A Chapter in the Story of William Barrington-Coupe and Joyce Hatto
by Christopher Howell
This article is prompted by John France’s recent catalogue of the records issued by the Revolution label. It sent me back to an attempt I made, in the wake of the Hatto scandal, to relate the full story of this couple’s impact on the recording world. In the end I had to set the work aside. Too much information was unavailable, at least without far greater research facilities than I had. Subsequently, the work done by Christopher Webber for his article in the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography has cleared up most of the mysteries. The following is a slightly revised version of my account of the “Revolution period”.
John France does not actually mention the name of William Barrington-Coupe, founder of the Revolution label. I appreciate his unwillingness to become enmeshed in Hatto-related matters. I believe, though, that the reasons for the creation and rapid demise of this label are best explained as an episode in the story of this inventive pair.
1966-1976: Freedom and Revolution
Prison bars for William Barrington-Coupe and a cluster of untalented pupils at Crofton Grange for Joyce Hatto seem not to have dampened the couple’s ambitions. They were back in the saddle ere long, once again playing the go-getters who never got. As so much of their story centres around records we can start with Barrington-Coupe.
Following his release from prison Barrington-Coupe, rather than revive Concert Artist or Delta, tried a fresh start with a label called Revolution. Two releases advertised in Gramophone (11/70 and 8/71) included the famous Bax Symphonic Variations with Hatto and Handley, as well as plenty of Fiorentino. Grandeur was much in evidence. The complete piano music of Liszt was announced. Only four volumes were ever issued, two each by Gail Buckingham and Philip Challis. The LPs were pricey: 46 shillings against top prices of 45 shillings (HMV) and 45s 11d (Decca), though Deutches Grammophon had just gone up to 47s 6d. These were the Wilson years; the pound had been devalued and the decimal currency was around the corner. A boxily recorded LP of Clarinet Sonatas by Stanford, Ireland, Bax and Hughes, played by John Denman accompanied by Hazel Vivienne, is worth mentioning. Denman had played the Nielsen Concerto at the same Guildford concert in which Hatto gave the Bax Symphonic Variations. No doubt their meeting led to the recording project. Denman’s name was to figure quite frequently in Barrington-Coupe’s future programmes. There was also a cheaper label (19s 10d) which recycled material from Delta, Summit and Fidelio. Interestingly, there was a children’s series with actors such as Paul Daneman and Alec McCowen with the London Theatre Company, including “The Count of Monte Cristo” with Daneman, “Don Quixote” and “The Story of Mozart” with McCowen.
Revolution was a short-lived venture: “William Barrington-Coupe Ltd” was compulsorily wound up in 1971. As with Saga and Delta in Barrington-Coupe’s pre-Wormwood Scrubs years, there was no evident intention to make this a Hatto vanity label - she appeared on just two LPs, both dedicated to Bax. Hatto’s curriculum for a 1973 London recital stated that “the first two volumes of her contribution to the Liszt Edition will be issued later this year”. Some unfortunate Liszt recordings subsequently issued as Concert Artist cassettes are possibly the relics of this project.
The sleeve-notes for both of Hatto’s LPs were by Burnett James - good, professional pieces with no reference to the claims Hatto allegedly made to him in 1973 concerning her involvement with Bax1. He also provided notes for two other LPs. Barrington-Coupe did himself proud over the sleeve-notes generally, engaging some of the best-known musical writers of the day: Harold Rutland (for Ireland), Alec Robertson, Peter J. Pirie, W.A. Chislett and Ates Orga (for Field). Fiorentino apart, we may wonder if the sleeves were not better than many of the records.
That Indomitable champion of Liszt
Hatto now did her best to establish herself as a pianistic force on the London scene. Between 1971 and 1976 she gave five solo recitals at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and eight at the Wigmore. The series ended in debacle before she had got more than a small way through her cherished ambition of presenting the complete works of Liszt, but her programmes were large and enterprising with a number of rare works, some of them London premières, by Chopin as well as Liszt. Moreover, as the 1970s opened Hatto could claim a couple of important successes.
Bax in Guildford
The first of these was the performance of Bax’s Symphonic Variations in Guildford Civic Hall, with the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley, on 2nd May 1970. This was the first public performance of the original version since 1920, though the Hatto camp pointedly ignored, while the hoax was raging, the broadcast performance by Patrick Piggott in 1963, as did the Surrey Advertiser’s critic, C.C2. The work was then repeated in the studios for Barrington-Coupe’s Revolution label. This was the first recording of the piece; it remained for about two decades the only one and is generally considered Hatto’s largest claim to a niche in recording history.
Handley related in the BBC’s “Front Row” programme that the first approach had been made by Barrington-Coupe.
“I went to meet Joyce and she was a very pleasant person, but when I heard her play I thought, well, this is a tremendous talent, I only hope she can get round this highly difficult work… She had marvellous fingers. The only trouble was, she didn’t really have a great experience of playing with the orchestra, so it was very hard to stay with her. I must say that the sessions of the Symphonic Variations were among the hardest I’ve ever done. We eventually managed it but I believe I lost about three pounds in the effort.” He also recalled Barrington-Coupe as “an efficient fixer”.
Pre-scandal, in the New Zealand radio tribute conducted by Murray Khouri which provides us with our only opportunity to hear Hatto herself speaking, Handley was even more effusive, but also made no bones about the difficulties encountered during the sessions.
“I also gave her a Mozart concerto with the Guildford orchestra [post-scandal he added: “she played beautifully, but in the middle of the last movement, she just lost her way”3]. As a solo pianist she was absolutely marvellous, as I say, she had ten wonderful fingers and she could get round anything, and also she was an extremely charming person to work with, even when very difficult. I remember her saying to me when we were doing the Bax, at one point I said to her, ‘That bar is in three-two, Joyce,’ and she said, ‘Yes, I play it like this: one, twooooo, threeeee, four-five and six … and one’, which I found quite difficult to follow with an orchestra of ninety. But a wonderful solo player, I mean, a totally genuine person”.
He also described how he asked for an extra session with her in private to understand how to follow her. One wonders if in reality the session were not intended to straighten out her rhythmic vagaries, since the mannerisms he complains of are not greatly evident in the recording, while they are much more so in the solo Bax LP she also made for Revolution.
The performance was well received, C.C. hailing it as “one of the most committed performances of anything I have heard for quite a long time”4. One of the orchestral violinists recalled her rather theatrical style of playing, describing her as “flailing around”. He was, however, enthusiastic about the performance. Collectively, the orchestra dubbed her “the Mad Hatto”.
The Chopin Society
Another sign that better times might be on the way came from the Chopin Society5. This was formed in 1971, at the initiative of Lucie Swiatek, to take the place of the former “Friends of Chopin”. The first President was the composer Maurice Jacobson and the other committee members were Baroness Eirene White, Daisy Kennedy and Joyce Hatto. Baroness White had been Minister of State at the Welsh Office, while Daisy Kennedy (1893-1981) was a former violinist and once the wife of Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963). She left him to marry the poet and playwright John Drinkwater (1882-1937) in 1924.
The Chopin Society put on concerts in major London venues as well as smaller but well-esteemed ones such as Leighton House. Hatto’s Wigmore Hall recital of 28th June 1973, dedicated to “The Unknown Chopin”, was presented by the Society, thus giving a big boost to the series of London concerts on which Hatto was embarking.
South Bank and the Wigmore
Whether the Chopin Society ultimately found their cause to be best represented by Hatto is questionable. From the beginning it became evident that things were taking an odd turn. Pre-scandal days, Ates Orga put it thus gallantly:
Once at the Queen Elizabeth Hall - 21 October 1971 [the first of the London recitals]- I recollect her starting the last item on her programme, Chopin’s Op 53 Polonaise (substituted for the Polonaise-Fantasie), but never finishing it. No matter. There were mitigating circumstances an insertion in the programme told us, ‘an unfortunate collision on the motorway’. Charmingly apologising, she let fly the Military Polonaise from Op 40 instead. You remember and admire people for that sort of courage, more sometimes than for their victories 6.
Post-scandal, in a much quoted posting on the Google discussion group RMCR, one Andrew Taylor was more forthright:
I saw a recital by Joyce Hatto at the QEH - out of this list I think it must have been the one on 21 October 1971. … the concert has always stuck in my mind as having been really quite bad. I can’t remember many details, but my memory is of playing that was both full of fluffed passages, and also insensitive and heavy-handed. I think she even stopped half way through one piece … and announced “I can’t play this”. She may also have been having problems with slippery fingers from sweating.
This was not an isolated incident, and polonaises seemed particularly at risk. Writing of the recital of 28th June 1973, RW of the Daily Telegraph, after remarking that “there was something attractive about the manner in which Miss Hatto applied a highly-anguished rubato”, reported as follows:
Unhappily, before the first half of the recital had been reached the pianist suddenly became victim of a nervousness so extreme that she had to absent herself halfway through a Polonaise. Her return to the platform was courageous and she tried valiantly to overcome her very overwrought condition7.
The Daily Telegraph seems to have been alone in giving coverage to at least the earlier concerts in the series. Of the 3rd June 1972 recital NK remarked that “Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 12 is, we know, a brash virtuoso piece. Here it sounded merely crude - which it certainly is not”8. However, JW went to hear her on October 26th of the same year and was more sympathetic, declaring that her performance of the Seven Hungarian Historical Portraits “was an important event and there was real power and impetus behind Miss Hatto's performance”9.
Hatto’s fourth Liszt recital took place on 10th January 1974. The programme promised a fifth in spring but she gave no further concerts that year. The irregular progress of her appearances implies that not all was well. She was back on 27th March 1975 with a Chopin programme at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, gave three more Liszt recitals at the Wigmore Hall later the same year and another recital in each of the two venues in 1976. The programme leaflet for 7th July 1976 promised another two Liszt recitals later that year, but so far as is known she never played in public again.
After mid-1973 even the Daily Telegraph ceased to show interest, or maybe thought silence the kinder option. One London musician who attended the first part of her final appearance was Andrew Ball, now a Professor of the Royal College of Music. He recalled that “There was something slightly crazy about it - it was more than just not-very-good-playing. Having said that, it did have this slightly wayward, pretentious air about it: it had some of the affectations of a great pianist without any of the goods" 10.
The foreign press
If Hatto’s concert career seemed spiralling towards disaster, she could console herself that her curriculum, as printed on her concert programmes for the South Bank series, was growing impressively. Alongside her piano lessons with Drzewiecki and Kabos it was stated that she had had composition lessons with Hindemith (1895-1963) and Matyás Seiber (1905-1960). Her Polish recitals - she really did give some - were mentioned and it was stated that “Joyce Hatto has played throughout Europe and her future engagements include visits to Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary and, much further afield, to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan”.
Furthermore, in stark contrast to the silence, faint praise and worse which her playing drew from the London critics, she was able to quote - apparently - fulsome plaudits from around Europe. Her Liszt recital programmes were adorned with extracts - unfortunately undated - from Der Tagesspiegel and Die Zeitung of Berlin, Kurier of Vienna and Figaro of Paris. Adopting a horses for courses policy, her Chopin recitals drew, instead, upon three Polish newspapers: Jurier Lubelski, Zycie Warszawy (with three separate quotations) and Lustrowany Kurier Polskie Bydoszsz. A common love of hyperbole and an obsession with the verb “to dominate” seem to suggest that the translators - at least - of all these articles were one and the same: “it was difficult to conclude which composer dominated the evening” … “Her Liszt playing dominated the recital” … “Her recital at once demonstrated Liszt’s complete dominance over all his rivals”.
In view of later claims, one omission is striking. Hatto allegedly told Burnett James - in the 1973 article - of the extraordinary success she had obtained with her performances of the Bax Symphonic Variations - and also the Brahms First Concerto - in the Soviet Union. Ates Orga persuaded her to date this tour to 1970 and had sight - in translation - of a glowing review. Several Bax experts have been approached over this performance but none were aware of any such event. In particular, the encyclopaedic Lewis Foreman remarked that “a possible Russian performance in the 1970s would surely have filtered through to the considerable Bax interest by that time - but I have no memory or note of it” 11.
It is perhaps a pity that things did not end here, as this article will. The scandal which erupted around thirty years later is too fresh in everyone’s minds to need further discussion.
1 At the height of the Hatto bubble, an article by Burnett James appeared on the Concert Artist site, supposedly written in 1973 but not published at the time. The authenticity of this article has been queried.
2 Surrey Observer, 8 May 1970
3 Boston Globe, 28 February 2007. The date of this performance has not been traced.
4 Surrey Observer, ibid.
5 http://www.chopin-society.org.uk/history.htm , website viewed 16th February 2008. See also Orga.
6 Orga: From an article once viewable on the Concert Artist site
7 Daily Telegraph, 29 June 1973.
8 Daily Telegraph, 5 June 1972.
9 Daily Telegraph, 27 October 1972.
10 Rod Williams: “The Great Classical Piano Swindle”, Intelligent Life, Autumn 2007.
11 E-mail to author, 27 August 2007.
Just a short note from Australia to thank Musicweb-International for publishing John France's and Christopher Howell's articles about Revolution Records and the whole Barrington-Coupe / Hatto saga. Fascinating.
The only thing I can add to these articles is the fact that the famous Revolution / Bax / Guildford recording got an extremely enthusiastic review in TEMPO (Spring 1971 issue). Given the predominantly unenthusiastic critiques of Hatto's work elsewhere, I thought I should mention this laudatory notice.
R. J. Stove, Melbourne