Wednesday, March 14, 2007

MUSIC: Hattogate: Knives Out

David Hurwitz, editor of, isn't one to pull his punches. Oof! Ouch!


How disappointing. William Barrington-Coupe, husband of Joyce Hatto and head of Concert Artist recordings, has (apparently) taken the easy way out. In a pathetic letter to BIS owner Robert von Bahr, he claims that he was motivated to doctor his late wife’s recordings to hide technical imperfections and gasps of pain as the suffering woman labored through the virtuoso thickets of such works as Messiaen’s Vingt R├ęgards, Albeniz’ Iberia, and the Chopin/Godowsky Etudes. And if you believe that, I hear the Brooklyn Bridge is up for sale at a very good price.

The “I did it for my wife” excuse was always on the table; indeed, it was the simplest explanation, but it won’t wash for a number of reasons:First: It does not explain why Barrington-Coupe did not simply come clean after his wife’s death. Committing a petty crime out of love for a dying woman is understandable, maybe even admirable in a twisted sort of way. Continuing and compounding the ruse for months after her passing, though, certainly is not.

Second: It does not explain the sheer scope of the enterprise: a few recordings, maybe, but over 100? I think not. Can anyone conjure up the image of Ms. Hatto on her death bed, wracked with pain, asking her stricken husband how much she would just love to record the complete Dukas piano music before the inevitable end? A dozen or so truly excellent examples of her art (real or not) should have been more than sufficient to cement her reputation as a cult favorite, and ease her passing. The very comprehensiveness of the project hardly smacks of love as much as it does greed.

Third: On the assumption that the solo recordings truly were fabricated in order to hide Ms. Hatto’s waning keyboard prowess, how then do we account for the phony concerto recordings? It may well be that Barrington-Coupe could explain to his wife that the mistakes and vocal grimaces were removed by the magic of digital editing, but did a presumably serious artist such as Ms. Hatto accept the existence of concerto recordings that she obviously knew she never even made? She may have been suffering, even delusional, but that’s asking a bit much.

Fourth: Indeed, this raises the very interesting issue of Ms. Hatto’s complicity in the whole enterprise. Remember, she authored many of the booklet notes. Was she the real writer? Did she only write notes for productions in which she actually took part to some degree? If not, was she even aware of the many, many releases that do not feature her literary contributions? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Fifth: Barrington-Coupe’s claim that he chose recordings on the basis of their resemblance to what his wife would have done (or did) also rings hollow. If so, let him produce those original master tapes, as I suggested previously, and let us compare them to the stolen material. Did those recordings ever exist?

Sixth: The selection of labels from which to filch the music, emphasizing non-British artists and smaller companies with limited distribution, positively reeks of a very carefully calculated, long term plan. It goes beyond the sort of caution required merely to avoid detection at home and please a dying woman. Combined with the vast scope of repertoire selected, it is impossible not to conclude that the intention was not merely to give comfort to a terminally ill artist, but rather to create “the greatest unknown pianist who ever lived” out of whole cloth. Whether this particular combination of cynicism and megalomania originated with Barrington-Couple, Hatto herself, or a combination of the two we may never know, but it was hardly the product of a soon-to-be-bereaved husband’s despair and desperation. It strikes me as far more likely that Barrington-Coupe may have begun by splicing in a few passages here and there to spruce up his wife’s defective recordings, but once he realized that he could get away with it, other motivations took over completely.

Seventh: I mentioned in my previous editorial that the “victimization” mentality is inherent in the arts community today. Most artists feel neglected; most express frustration at the lack of attention given their concerts and recordings; most feel a sense of entitlement; most don’t steal in consequence. Everyone who has come into contact with Barrington-Coupe will attest to his frequently uttered devotion to his wife and her artistic integrity. If this were real, can anyone seriously imagine a scam of this magnitude as consistent with Ms. Hatto’s own true feelings, even as her theoretically loving husband understood them?

Eighth: In all of my communications with Barrington-Coupe, he has been quick to mention his own dicey health (constantly), the injustice of the world, the inconstancy of the public, and in general to complain expansively about ills both imagined and real. He already tried the “evil British national character” and “malicious sabotage” excuses. This one sounds suspiciously like the next one down on the list.

Finally, let us not forget that Barrington-Coupe presides over a catalog of recordings that encompasses more than those of his wife, including much of the legacy of Sergio Fiorentino. The provenance of those recordings, and any others in the Concert Artist inventory, comprises a chapter yet to be written. This latest, pitiful attempt at damage control only begs the question of what else remains to be discovered. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a conspiracy theorist, nor do I believe that Barrington-Coupe is any kind of diabolical genius. The sooner this business ends, the better.

Still, like most of his ilk, Barrington-Coupe seems to have a flair for finding and exploiting the cracks in a flawed system, and for preying on people’s trust and sympathy. One thing, however, is certain: he is a liar, and not likely to change his stripes in a sudden fit of remorse. He is walking through a door that was opened for him, as he seems to have done throughout his career, and the fact that his excuses may appear reasonable does not make them truthful.

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