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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How to make a classical fake

By Norman Lebrecht / February 21, 2007

It’s not that hard to fake a classical record. The allegation that up to 100 discs by the English pianist Joyce Hatto may be dubs of other artists has caused an international stir and cast a general slur on the abilities of record critics to tell one pianist from another. But these are by no means the first dodgy discs, nor the last.

Hatto, who died last June at the age of 77, was on the shy side of showbiz. She hadn’t been seen on a concert platform since 1976, withdrawing (so her husband said) out of anxiety that disfigurement from cancer treatment, along with sudden bouts of pain, would detract from her art. Before that, she was never much of a presence, appearing occasionally at the Wigmore Hall and never with an international orchestra or within a major concert series. She was, as I recall, one of a huddle of middle-aged pianists who were comprehensively outshone by the none-too-bright Moura Lympany.

Once retired, however, Hatto’s name began to shine on a range of recordings that ran from baroque to modern, Scarlatti to Messiaen - a span matched only by the wacky genius of a Horowitz, a Richter and a Gould. The works appeared on the Concert Artist label owned by her husband, a record hustler by name of William Barrington-Coupe, and the deception might never have been exposed were it not for a slew of rave reviews that followed Hatto’s death last summer.

The whistle was blown when an American who bought Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes on the back of much blog-chat found, on transferring the music to his I-pod, that the screen credited the Hungarian pianist Lazslo Simon as the performer. Simon had recorded the Etudes on the Swedish Bis label in 1987. When the purchaser played the two discs side by side, they sounded identical. He contacted a critic, Jed Distler, who had given the CD a rave. Distler emailed the editor of Gramophone magazine who, in turn, contacted Andrew Rose, an ex-BBC radio engineer with a state-of-the-art record lab in a medieval French village. Rose tested sample tracks of Hatto and Simon. Two were identical, a third was not, and a fourth had been, in Rose’s words, ‘subtly doctored’ – digitally compressed by 0.02 percent to make it sound slightly different from the Simon original. There was no margin here for error. ‘It is impossible,’ notes Rose, ‘for any musician to repeat the same performance twice - even more so when you're being measured to a sample-rate accuracy of 1/44100th of a second.’ Independent research at the Royal Holloway’s Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music (Charm) confirmed his conclusions. The computer-verified timings and dynamics of every bar in Hatto’s performance of two Chopin Mazurkas were found to be ‘virtually indistinguishable’ from those of a Swiss recording by Eugene Indic. The computer does not lie.

Distler contacted Barrington-Coupe for an explanation. The widower replied that he was surprised as anyone by the revelations. ‘She was the sole pianist on those recordings,’ he told a subsequent journalist caller. ‘I was there at all the important sessions. I was the engineer on the jobs and I take full responsibility for everything.’

Barrington-Coupe, 76, is a fringe-label veteran who, when he married Hatto in 1956, was A&R chief of Saga, a cheap label with exceptionally nasty sound and some rare artists, including the young mezzo-soprano Janet Baker. He was also involved with Joe Meek’s iconic Triumph label, which produced the 1962 hit, Telstar. Those who remember him around the studios have few kind words to say and several dark suspicions, but that may just be sour retrospect.

The question Barrington-Coupe refuses to address is how his wife, an invalid lady in a Cambridge kitchen, cooked up performances that neither human ears nor mainframe computers can tell apart from Yefim Bronfman in Rachmaninov’s third concerto, Vladimir Ashkenazy in Brahms’s second and a host of others across the repertoire. He orchestras named on some of her recordings are fictitious entities – the National Philharmonic-Symphony, the Warsaw Philharmonia – and some of her conductors are not just obscure, they positively reek of stale, red herrings.

Such deceptions, however, are nothing new in classical recording. In the 1950s, the Vienna Philharmonic made records for hole-in-wall labels under a dozen false names, the real VPO being under an exclusive contract with Decca. Urania, a German label, reissued Nazi artists under assumed names. Vox, an American label, recorded the brothers of world-famous conductors and soloists and blew up their surnames to delude record fanciers into thinking they were the genuine article.

Major labels like EMI and Decca employed nameless singers to pitch the high notes that great sopranos could not reach and habitually patched up false notes in big recordings with true ones from lesser tapes. Only two conductors in my experience – Otto Klemperer and Klaus Tennstedt - ever protested this practice.

Fakery was always laughed off as a prank, an inside joke at the customer’s expense; when the mother of a gifted pianist passed off one of his sessions as, supposedly, her own, that too was a gift to the nit-pickers rather than the fraud squad.

What made classical records so easy to fake was the proliferation of same works by different artists - hundreds of Chopin waltzes, dozens of Rachmaninov concertos. With the exception of the occasional genius, few of these records betray much originality or can be told apart by the naked ear. That spells paradise for a potential hoaxer. If Hatto is, as seems likely, a figment of her husband’s creativity, her epitaph will be that she posthumously exposed a hole at the heart of the classical record.

* Norman Lebrecht’s history of classical recording is published next month (see amazon link below)

Link: [Maestros, Masterpieces and Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry]

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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