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A New Twist in Case of Classical Music Hoax


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Last week, we brought you the story of the late Joyce Hatto. She's the musician who was once described as the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of. Now she's the pianist everybody has heard of.

Last week, Gramophone Magazine reported on allegations that some of her records were fakes, recordings of other pianists inserted and passed off as hers. And today, there is one more sad development.

We've got James Inverne, editor of Gramophone Magazine, back on the line with us to explain. He's with us from Reading, England. And nice to have you back on the program, James.

Mr. JAMES INVERNE (Editor, Gramophone Magazine): Nice to be back.

CONAN: So what's the latest?

Mr. INVERNE: Well, this is really an amazing twist in the story. We discovered and revealed that, in fact, William Barrington-Coupe - the husband of the late Joyce Hatto - has written a letter of confession to Robert von Bahr, who's the head of BIS Records, which owns one of the recordings. In fact, the one which was the first to come to light, the Liszt Transcendentals with Laszlo Simon.

And in this letter, he says, essentially, I did it and I did it for my wife. He says that when she was in her last years, she was suffering so much from cancer - more than she cared to admit even to herself - she would go into the studio and she'd try and record things which she'd been able to play perfectly well earlier in her career, but now there were grunts and sighs and gasps of pain.

And so he started patching in little bits and pieces from other recordings from pianists whom he thought sounded rather like Hatto. And interestingly, he says that Laszlo Simon had the same teacher as Joyce Hatto. And then once he got the habit, as it were, it became more and more, longer and longer, portions.

He stops in the letter just short of admitting that he lifted whole discs, although we have beyond any reasonable doubt, so they say, proof that he did that. But he does admit to, quote, that he has acted - I think the quote is, "I have acted dishonestly, stupidly and unlawfully."

CONAN: And does - he denied this up until then?

Mr. INVERNE: Yes. Up until then, he was quiet. I mean, when I phoned him first of all, he was very, you know, befuddled. When we last spoke, I think I reported that he said, well, I haven't got a clue what's happened. I can't explain it. Now - and since then, he denied it very strongly to newspapers around the world.

And I spoke to him yesterday finally for about 40 minutes about this letter, and he confirmed that he'd written it and stood by what was in it.

CONAN: And was his wife - Joyce Hatto, the pianist herself - was she aware that this was going on?

Mr. INVERNE: Well, this is why he says he's written the letter. He was very concerned that gossip on the Internet, saying that - in fact, there was some wild stuff on there. People saying even that she didn't have cancer. Some conspiracy theories that she died years earlier and there was a substitute in her place for the last number of years.

But the thing which really got to him was some people were saying that she was in on it. She was part of a huge confidence trick. And he said no. In fact, he did it for her legacy, and he couldn't stand to think of her name being tarnished in that way.

CONAN: Yet there is a relatively modern quote of Joyce Hatto in which she's asked about her ability to, you know, do all these recordings in a single go -one take, as it were. And she says, yes. I do all my practicing at home. Surely, she must have been aware that the recordings that she was making were not the recordings being issued.

Mr. INVERNE: You know, there are a lot of question marks still hanging over this. Someone said to me earlier today, do you think - this has been going on for about 10 days now, this scandal. Do you think people are still going to be talking about it a week from now?

And all I can say, as much as I would like it to rest and I would like her memory to rest in peace, until many questions, including the one you just put -but also questions such as well, all right. If he's admitted that some of it wasn't her, well come forward and tell us what was her so that we can at least get some sort of idea as to what sort of an artist she was.

And questions such as if she really did record with orchestras, why hasn't one single member of any orchestra just come forward if only to say, hey, I was there, it happened? Why have there been no photographs. Until questions like these are answered - unfortunately and very tragically, even if you believe his story, which I would really like to, rather than being allowed to rest in fond remembrance as a great artist - Joyce Hatto be best known with a certain amount of notoriety?

CONAN: And William Barrington-Coupe seemed to suggest that first it was just a few passages here and there, and then slightly bigger, but the expert that you hired to look into these recordings seems to come to conclusion that every single one he has looked at has been tampered with.

Mr. INVERNE: That's right, Andrew Rose, who you had on the program last time. Yes, that's absolutely right. And not just Andrew, there's another expert, a professor at London University, who by coincidence was using an entirely different technological method to prove this. And by coincidence, he just noticed that a Hatto disk was the same as another.

So we have it from various different fields of proof which corroborate each other. But, as far as we're concerned, as far as the music lovers are concerned, of course, the big question are A: did he did it to deliberately deceive the record-buying public. Well, he's now given an explanation that he did it for very emotional, very tragic reasons in many ways, which gives almost a melancholic, romantic, extra dimensions of this whole story and I would like to believe that.

But what we also want to know is, well, will the real Joyce Hatto stand up, you know, which are her recordings. And a lot of us have spent a lot of money on these CDs, let's not forget. And I think in many ways, he owes us that.

CONAN: And there could be legal ramifications. As you suggest, there was fraud.

Mr. INVERNE: Yes, indeed. Well, I know that the BPI, the British Phonographic Industry, which is the governing body for British recording companies is -they're looking into this. The head of BIS Records, Robert von Bahr, who (unintelligible) letter sent, said that he will press charges, partly due to the fact that it will be hard to claim damages, he thought.

But, you know, it only takes one person to stand up and say - and that could be listener - and Mr. Barrington-Coupe said to me yesterday, you know, he's been getting some abusive phone calls and so on in the middle of the night from people. It would only takes one listener to say, I bought this CD, it was sold to me under false pretenses, this is fraud. And, sadly, we also now know that -and it's unrelated in terms of the details of the case - but we know that Mr. Barrington-Coupe has been in prison before so he's not a stranger to these sort of things.

CONAN: What are radio stations doing, who play classical music? What about people who list recordings of classical music in their catalogs for sale, are they still identifying these pieces as Joyce Hatto at the piano?

Mr. INVERNE: Well, radio stations seem to be recovering from the story at the moment. I think we're all kind of catching our breath. I mean it's been the most amazing story, you know, of scandal and then a mystery, and now perhaps some, sort of, tragic romance with - but still great questions over it.

As far as retail is concerned, these discs are always quite hard to get. You could really - for reasons which now perhaps are patently obvious - you could really any get them through his site, and I believe, some online retailers. And as far as I know, they will stop stocking them. William Barrington-Coupe said to me yesterday, that he's destroyed all the remaining stock. He's wound down the company, and he stops selling them, and now he just wants some peace.

And the great irony of this, of course, is that as it always the way with things, these discs seem to become great collector's items. And you can go in eBay and see them changing hands for quite exorbitant amounts of money -including one, Barrington-Coupe told me that his wife had autographed. And she didn't autograph many, because it took her - it caused her so much pain to actually signed her name. But apparently, there was one which changed hands for something like $500, and he wishes he'd her to autograph a few hundred more.

CONAN: As this story continues and you mention Mr. Barrington-Coupe was asking for peace and seems unlikely to be, at least, an immediate prospect. As this story continues, this romantic aspect of it, it seems hard to believe that there aren't people already writing a screenplay.

Mr. INVERNE: Well, I've been approached by one film production company already so I think you're - I think you're right on the money. I mean it does seem to be the stuff of Hollywood films, doesn't it. And it's the story of David Helfgott made a great film "Shine" which it did. One could imagine this being a fantastic film somewhere between "Shine" and "Rogue Trader," the Ewan McGregor film about the Nick Leeson "Rogue Trader."

CONAN: I wonder also, there was moment when - after she retreated from public performance because her disease was causing her so much pain and started issuing these voluminous recordings of Liszt and Chopin and others - there was a moment when a whole - several critics hailed her as the greatest living pianist you've never heard of. Are their faces a little bit stuck with egg this past two weeks?

Mr. INVERNE: So I had the word egg mentioned to me in this context a few times as you can imagine over the last fortnight.


Mr. INVERNE: I - truthfully, I think not. There are two ways at looking at this. The first is that I think they've - it's almost as if they've done an inadvertent blind listening test and been vindicated. I mean, they said these are fine recording, fine performances. And Ashkenazy, you know, Yefim Bronfman, these are not bad pianists, so...

CONAN: If he's going to steal, at least, he stole from the best.

Mr. INVERNE: If you're going to steal, steal it from the best, as they say. And that's true. And also I think that, you know, we know these were electronically tampered with and people don't (unintelligible) just don't (unintelligible) for this sort of thing. But it will be very, very tough to spot. So I couldn't -I'm standing firmly behind my critics and they stand by their reviews.

CONAN: And how long is it before the technical analysis is finished and we have some idea who belongs to what in terms of who's playing the piano.

Mr. INVERNE: Oh, that could take, I mean, we don't have the resources to go through the entire catalog of gramophone. I wish we did. But it's something which will take months and months but people all over the world on the Internet, everyday is sending us literally hundreds of e-mails now saying this recording or that recording, we think of this or that. If anyone's got the time or energy and if you look at Wikipedia, there are lots of many unproven allegations on there. Maybe within the year we'll have some better idea, but there is going to be a lot of speculation.

CONAN: And is this stain spreading to any other musicians?

Mr. INVERNE: No, there are, you know, a couple of rumors about one off recordings, that an act from one opera is being spliced into another and so on. But I mean that's one of the things I should say are remarkable about this. There's nothing on this scale. I think what is true is perhaps it's spread an air of cynicism around what previously had been thought of as the rather polite world of classical music. And that's a shame.

And one other thing, if I may, that is highlighted - which is rather more to the point as far as the recording companies are concerned, and why they might be minded to press charges - is this has emphasized just how easy this is to do. And there are many people who may not have the - if you believe them, the emotional and humane reasons for doing this, that Mr. Barrington-Coupe said he had - who were just like to turn a fast buck. And the recording companies might want to do something to dissuade those people.

CONAN: James Inverne, thanks very much. I appreciate your time.

Mr. INVERNE: Thank you.

CONAN: James Inverne, the editor of Gramophone Magazine, which broke the Joyce Hatto story. He joined us today on the phone from England.

And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.