Monday, February 19, 2007

Joyce Hatto and the Critics

In the generally quiet and polite universe of classical music, scandals are rare. In fact, the biggest scandal that I can think of - though it predated me by ten years - is the Centennial Ring at Bayreuth. Even then, that was an artistic "scandal," with conservative Wagnerians and Regietheater Konzeptherren fighting it out. However, the breaking news of Joyce Hatto seems to be approaching similar scale and has the added benefit of being a "real" scandal.

David Hurwitz, editor in chief of, gives a nice little summary here:

On Tuesday, February 13, a reader, Mr. Brian Ventura (who kindly granted me permission to identify him by name) sent one of our writers, Jed Distler, a very remarkable email which he kindly forwarded to me. It seems that the reader had purchased a copy of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes with Joyce Hatto on the Concert Artists label, based on the numerous recommendations this pianist and recording had received (including our own). When he attempted to transfer this recording via his computer using iTunes, the track listing revealed the artist as Laszlo Simon, who recorded the same music for BIS. Comparing the Hatto to sample tracks of the Simon available on, the reader was shocked to realize that the two performances appeared to him to be identical. That was the substance of his email to us.

Here, also, is a very technical vivisection of some of her recordings, proving - conclusively, to my mind - the hoax. Gramophone scooped, as Mr. Hurwitz noted, everyone with this story. Of course, the venerable and profoundly British publication had some cause to beat everyone out of the gate. As James Inverne, the Gramophone editor, wrote:

It was around a year ago that Gramophone’s critics began to champion this little-known lady, whose discs – miraculous performances, released by her husband William Barrington-Coupe on the tiny label Concert Artist – were notoriously difficult to get hold of. Such was the brilliance of this pianist across Liszt, Schubert, Rachmaninov, Dukas and more in a dizzying range – that it was worth making the effort to seek out Concert Artist to get these discs, and they became much sought-after. By the time she died in June 2006, Joyce Hatto was not only a sudden widespread success, she was a cause célèbre. To love Hatto recordings was to be in the know, a true piano aficionado who didn’t need the hype of a major label’s marketing spend to recognise a good, a great, thing when they heard it.

The Hatto reviews on ClassicsToday, mostly by Jed Distler, show a similar enthusiasm for this unknown woman's recordings. I won't get into the story, which can be found at many outlets, as it's probably mostly hogwash. No, I want to discuss what this whole business says about the situation in classical music today.

Joyce Hatto was discovered and almost worshipped because she was an unknown on a small, boutique label. This whole mess shows an antipathy for established artists and major labels and an addiction to smaller labels and overlooked artists. The critics were selling a story, not an artist; that's obvious, since most of these recordings had been out for a while. They were out there and nothing happened. A good story comes along, with the same music, and that's the ticket - as Jon Lovitz' sublimely obnoxious Saturday Night Live character might have said.

I feel sorry for the consumers taken in, but I don't feel sorry for the critics. They wanted a good story and they got it. And then some. Perhaps this will teach everyone a lesson: if it sounds too perfect to be true, it is. Period. Full stop.