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The Great Hatto/Barrington-Coupe Caper

(This blog entry was first posted in a slightly different form at my personal weblog.)

Joyce Hatto ceased her public performing career in the 1970s when she was diagnosed with cancer.

The British pianist was never a brilliant star fixed in the firmament of concert performers. Hatto was apparently, at best, a solid performer.

Joyce Hatto cut her teeth practicing scales even while WW II raged around her, the daughter of a man who loved the music of Rachmaninov. Joyce Hatto toured a bit in Europe in the 50s. In 1956 she married a man named William Barrington Coupe. Together with a producer named Joe Meek, William Barrington-Coupe ran some sort of record company from about 1960 onwards.

After Joyce Hatto ceased public performances, so the story goes, she set about recording a remarkable body of work. Mr. Barrington-Coupe apparently had a recording studio set up in the couples’ home, and with this luxury available, Ms. Hatto could record at her leisure.

About two years ago, Ms. Hatto’s recordings began to receive remarkable notice. In August of 2005, Richard Dyer wrote a piece about Ms. Hatto for The Boston Globe. Dyer was apparently in error where Ms. Hatto’s recording career was concerned:

She made her London debut in the early 1950s; she played extensively throughout Britain and made three tours of Poland. In the mid-1950s, she played all nine Beethoven Symphonies in Liszt’s transcriptions in London. (“When I was done with them, I felt as if I were a better person than I was when I started,” she says.) In 1972 she embarked on an ambitious project to play the complete works of Liszt in London; by 1976, when she became ill, she had played eight all-Liszt recital programs in Wigmore Hall (“Rather like a morgue, or a Chapel of Rest, don’t you think?” she remarks of the atmosphere in London’s most famous recital venue). She played in America only once, and she says, good-naturedly, that “no one came, but it was nice to see my records at Sam Goody’s.”

Those would have been her first LP recordings, made for Saga – music of Bax, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff, as well as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and an album of piano music from the movies, including “Jealous Lover” and “Intermezzo From the ‘Spellbound’ Concerto.” Perhaps records like this, and her interest in Liszt, who was very out of fashion in the ’70s, account for her neglect in the British musical press…

The emphasis was mine.

Newspaper accounts from various American papers in the late 50s and early 60s seem to indicate Ms. Hatto made recordings with a body called the Hamburg Pro Musica. The following was published by United Press International in September, 1959. The article was titled, “Gershwin is given full LP treatment”:

Rhapsody In Blue—An American In Paris by Joyce Hatto with Hamburg Pro Musica (Forum F-70008). Two giant Gershwin compositions are interpreted in classical style. Miss Hatto is facile at the keyboard and is especially sensitive on An American In Paris…

What’s the hoopla about Joyce Hatto? Why is the possible variance between the UPI article from 48 years ago and statements by and about Joyce Hatto made in 2005 interesting now?

Because of this: “iTunes fingers musical fraud.” From the New Scientist Technology Blog:

[A] critic at the Gramophone magazine got [a] surprise when he put a Hatto recording of Lizt’s 12 Transcendental Studies into his computer. The iTunes player identified the disc as being recorded by another pianist, Lászlo Simon. He dug out the Simon album and found it sounded exactly the same as the Hatto one.

iTunes had stumbled on a hoax. To identify albums it calculates a ‘discid’ from the duration of the tracks and then connects to the Compact Disc Database online. The Gramophone critic tried another disc – Hatto playing Rachmaninov – and again iTunes identified it as belonging to someone else. Again, the named recording – by Yefim Bronfman – sounded no different…

The blog then linked this site, where the fraud is being explained and demonstrated in precise detail.

The story was so cinematic, no wonder people loved the idea; that an aging and cancer-ridden concert pianist was making gold with the ivories in lone recording sessions over the years, as her health permitted.

But if you have the patience to pick through the sites above, it becomes obvious that Ms. Hatto’s recordings are well-proven to be forgeries.

This made me wonder about the story as a whole. In his article in the Globe, Richard Dyer wrote about Hatto’s “neglect in the British musical press.” I found that striking, too. Another passage in the same article was eerie:

After his wife has left the room, Barrington-Coupe says, “She doesn’t want to play in public because she never knows when the pain will start, or when it will stop, and she refuses to take drugs. Nothing has stopped her, and I believe the illness has added a third dimension to her playing; she gets at what is inside the music, what lies behind it.”

Earlier in the piece the writer had referred to the aging cancer-ridden woman’s “girlish” voice.

If Dyer conducted his interviews by phone, could it be that he never even spoke to Joyce Hatto?

Where is the proof she died in 2006?

In obituary listings for Norfolk in 2004, I found one entry for a Joyce Ethel Hatto, who was approximately 78 when she died. As rare as the last name Hatto appears to be, it still doesn’t stretch credulity to think there were two women with the same name and near the same age. Besides, at least one obituary for the pianist Joyce Hatto gave her middle name as Hilda.

What if there were not two Joyce Hattos, though?

Then the hoax, which might properly be called the “Barrington-Coupe Caper,” becomes much more strange and intriguing than it even was before.

For further interest you may want to click this link: “William Barrington-Coupe.” The link takes you to a search of Google Groups. Discussions of Hatto and Mr. Barrington-Coupe go back to at least 2004.

I don’t know that I’ve done any new sleuthing on this one, nor that I needed to. I learned that Barrington-Coupe may have been in the news in England a couple of decades ago for fraud, thus setting a precedent, and that the conductor listed on some Hatto recordings, Rene Kohler, may not exist. I also couldn’t help but note that the only “Barrington-Coupe” to turn up in any search engine was the man mentioned in this article. That made me wonder if the name was made up, as well. The con could have been going on for many decades. Joyce Hatto might have just been the newest wrinkle.

To the supremely arrogant world of classical music, this whole thing is quite a blow. Part of the deception where Joyce Hatto was concerned was facilitated by glowing reviews of the first discs that came out a few years ago. Classical music critics listened with no real discernment, it seems. They fell in love with the peculiar romance inherent in the story, and if one of them thought, “gee, that sounds a lot like Ashkenazy,” well, that was easy to dismiss — Andrea Bocelli can sound like Pavarotti if the recording is playing in another room on a bad pair of speakers. (I’m not a fan of Bocelli at all, by the way, and I’m a tremendous fan of Pavarotti’s, where pure vocalism is concerned. Bocelli is fool’s gold, Pavarotti in his prime was 24k.)

A crime? Yes, I think so. But Barrington-Coupe is an old man, and Joyce Hatto is no longer around to defend herself, at all. So this crime will stand as a lesson, I think, to many who love classical music and pride themselves on being able to discern what is and is not a quality performance. Usually, anything that seems too good to be true probably is.

Unfortunately it is also a lesson to future audio forgers — iTunes is not your friend.


I’ve seen the question asked several times online: Was there even a Joyce Hatto, at all?

Definitely, I believe there was. If the UPI article cited in the original blog entry wasn’t enough, this Google Groups search should be some proof: “Joyce Hatto, Usenet mentions prior to 2005.” She appears to have begun recording with legitimate labels and orchestral groups in the mid-1950s. The discs that have been sold since about 2004 by William Barrington-Coupe are the ones that appear to have been made by plagiarizing (for lack of a better word) recordings of great, established artists.


This obituary in the Telegraph states that Richard Dyer did travel from Boston to the UK to interview Joyce Hatto. I wondered aloud in the original entry about this. So it would appear that Dyer was speaking to the real deal in 2005. Or, at least, Dyer spoke with a woman who said she was Joyce Hatto.

Sadly, if Dyer was speaking to Hatto, then to me it seems like she may have been complicit in her husband’s alleged deceptions after all.

UPDATE, 2/27/2007

William Barrington-Coupe confessed. He did it, he says, to make his wife feel good about what she was doing as she neared the end of her life.

This man did time in the UK in the ’60s for tax evasion, so I’m inclined to view his reasons for what he did with some skepticism, but he says he’s made no money off the scam. So far, it appears that some of the producers whose work was ripped off by Barrington-Coupe are taking what seems a peculiarly British view of the situation; since Barrington-Coupe is likely “ruined, one way or another,” he may not even be taken to court.