A classic case of theft by piano

CRITIC'S CORNER -- MUSIC

February 27, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

We all fall for something, at some point. A quick cure for the common cold. An impossibly cheap piece of electronic equipment that will somehow perform better than the high-priced name brand.

Quite a few critics fell for the discography of the late British pianist Joyce Hatto. They have probably been trying to wipe the egg from their faces since the news broke a couple of weeks ago that the recordings are a giant fraud. (I had been feeling guilty that I never bought her CDs. Now, of course, I'm feeling terribly smug.)

Hatto, who died last summer at 77, enjoyed a very modest career before going into seclusion in the 1970s because of ill health. Then, starting in 2002, a whole bunch of Hatto recordings started appearing, produced by her husband, William Coupe. He circulated descriptions of his brave wife, hobbled by a long illness, always managing to muster the strength for one more session over many years, one more attempt to preserve her artistry for posterity.

Well, as the knowing assistant Birdie observes in All About Eve, "What a story -- everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."

Too bad Birdie wasn't around to fling some cynicism long before Hatto's CDs totaled more than 100. Instead, lots of people bought it heavily, even though the likelihood of a single, obscure pianist recording an enormous range of repertoire, all stunningly, was a wee bit slim.

Technology, which Coupe so cleverly exploited, came back to haunt him when a CD collector in England put a Hatto product into his computer. A software program automatically identified the name of a different pianist, the one whose recording had been plagiarized. The Hatto scheme quickly collapsed as experts began comparing more of the CDs and discovered that Coupe had been stealing from obscure and well-known pianists.

After first denying any wrongdoing, Coupe has confessed and apologized, according to a posting yesterday on the Web site of Gramophone magazine, which broke the scandal.

The whole plot seems to have been a means of securing for Hatto the appreciation she didn't gain when she was in front of the public.

Whatever the motivation, it's all a little creepy. And especially cruel to the lesser-known, obviously talented pianists who were victimized. Maybe the critics who took their hats off to Hatto will now write fabulous things about the real artists.

I'd be delighted to see Carlo Grante get recognition. When I first came across this Italian pianist's fearless playing years back, I thought he deserved a real career. His brilliant recording of Chopin's Etudes, in the super-challenging arrangement by Leopold Godowsky, was one of those Coupe passed off as Hatto's.

I guess classical music lovers are as apt as anyone to embrace the unlikely in hopes of a rare artistic high. A record magazine once issued a CD that was supposed to contain a few minutes of Chopin himself playing the piano. Never mind that he died in 1849. I know professional pianists who fell for that practical joke, so eager were they to believe in something miraculous, even when the static-shrouded "Chopin" sounded remarkably pedestrian.

I also remember a respected musicologist telling me with wide-eyed wonder about an eccentric music lover in Indiana said to be hoarding silent film of Gustav Mahler conducting one of his own symphonies. Someday, the collector would hire a live orchestra to follow the baton of the composer, who died in 1911. Heck, that one was so enticing, I bought it for a minute or two, until the absurdity of it all hit home.

I think that's what fueled the Hatto caper -- people wanting to get in on something impossible, a great, glorious, previously buried experience. Maybe the lesson to be learned is that there are great, glorious -- and genuine -- experiences going on all the time, right before our very ears.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

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