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 Pianist's husband fakes 100 recordings - critics fooled!

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PostSubject: Pianist's husband fakes 100 recordings - critics fooled!   Fri Mar 02, 2007 1:32 am

Our Ears May Deceive Us
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2024791,00.html

When the celebrated British pianist Joyce Hatto died last July, this newspaper's obituarist observed that she had achieved "a discography that in quantity, musical range and consistent quality has been equalled by few pianists in history". It now turns out, though the writer could not possibly have known this, that the truest words in that sentence were "few pianists in history".

Hatto's husband, William Barrington-Coupe, admitted this week that he had heavily doctored recordings attributed to her by his record label, by inserting sections of recordings made for other labels by a few pianists in history. Barrington-Coupe's intervention was uncovered by another: a reviewer for Gramophone magazine noticed that his iPod's automatic track-identifier attributed Hatto CDs to other artists.

The husband, whose previous business history means he is unlikely ever to become director general of the CBI, has justified his fakery by the fact that his cancer-stricken wife was unable to perform in the last part of her career. But the interesting question now is not the effect on him but on the reputation of the recording industry and music critics.

Some commentators and bloggers have taken the extreme philosophical position that this scandal puts the tin piano lid on all recorded music. Perhaps there never was a Joyce Hatto, or maybe Vladimir Ashkenazy and Daniel Barenboim are merely figments of a skilled and mischievous studio technician, chewing banana sandwiches as he samples choice notes from remastered 78s.

On the first point, the tragic aspect of this story is that, while her widower seems to have made her a better player than she was, his exposure risks Hatto's genuine talent being discredited. Yet Neville Cardus, in the Guardian, rapturously reported a 1954 Brahms recital; and she also recorded, in front of witnesses, an acclaimed rendition of a rare Arnold Bax piece.

But even the comically apocalyptic commentary about whether any CD can now be believed does touch on a serious point. Though it's unlikely that other celebrated pianists will be exposed to quite the same degree - because, unlike the late Hatto, their regular live performances establish what they can do without an edit desk - it's true that digital technology now means that almost all recordings, live or studio, are virtual performances, cut together from a number of accounts.

Although there's clearly a huge moral and legal difference between grafting on the performer's own better notes and stealing someone else's, the Hatto chicanery usefully reminds listeners and critics that a recording is an ever more unreliable record of what a performer can sequentially create.

Some musicians and CD-buyers have clearly also enjoyed the fact that the story can be seen as an embarrassment for the reviewers and obituarists who endorsed the legend of the invisible invalid genius by applauding the releases. There is a genuine and understandable desire to expose reviewers as pseuds or fools. Newspapers, for example, enjoy showing art critics a mixed bundle of Jackson Pollocks and splash paintings by the kindergarten class at St Mary's and then chortling as the blokes in bow ties pick little Kylie's picture as a masterpiece of modern culture.

There's some doubt, though, about the relative quantities of egg that critics need to wipe from their faces in these cases. Admirers of modern art - an area in which assessments of achievement are heavily driven by subjectivity and fashion - are most vulnerable to mistaking the daubings of Class 1A for a Turner prizewinner.

But the music critics who championed Hatto were not strictly fooled at all. Identifying what they were hearing as great piano playing, they could not reasonably be expected to guess that the labelling was fake. In effect, in a musical equivalent of another well-known newspaper game - trying to fool wine writers by putting Château Latour in a bottle labelled plonk and vice versa - they correctly spotted that this cheap record label was putting out vintage stuff.

Even so, it's true that music is the art form in which it is easiest to fool the public, and Barrington-Coupe's deception, whatever its motivation, was able to take advantage of the audience's disadvantage in this respect.

While the most casual theatregoer is likely to notice that an actor has forgotten the lines or become inappropriately histrionic, solo musicians, once they have achieved a certain level of critical or publicity support, only have to get the notes more or less in the right order to receive a standing ovation. Even the late performances which critics were unanimous that Yehudi Menuhin should not have given were hot-ticket events.

This is because the distinctions between any two classical performances are highly technical, and only apparent even to a highly trained ear when the pair of interpretations are considered together. The quantity of what Barrington-Coupe did is probably a one-off, but the scandal cues us to listen more carefully.

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