Joyce Hatto

A sad hoax in the classical music world is unfolding right now. Dave has been following it on the newsgroups.

The British pianist Joyce Hatto retired from public performance in the late 1970s because of cancer. According to most sources, she died last June. However, in the last few years of her life, her husband — a recording engineer who owns his own studio — began issuing a series of recordings that he said had been made privately, mostly in the 1990s.

Since then, Dave tells me, there has been steady debate in the classical music newsgroups, some heralding her as nothing short of miraculous and others skeptical at the quantity of recordings (over 120) and the unlikelihood that someone would make that many recordings and wait so long before releasing them. Granted, the technology to issue ones own CDs is recent, but you’d think that a man who owned a recording studio would have tried to use his connections to interest a major record company, and you’d some label would be ecstatic to contract a pianist this spectacular.

A 2005 Boston Globe article about Joyce Hatto begins:

Joyce Hatto must be the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.

Hatto, now 76, has not played in public in more than 25 years because of an ongoing battle with cancer. She was once told that it is ”impolite to look ill,” and after a critic commented adversely on her appearance, she resolved to stop playing concerts.

Instead she has focused her prodigious energies on recording an astonishing collection of CDs — 119, so far, on a British label called Concert Artists. A few years ago, Arthur Rubinstein’s lifetime legacy of recordings filled 94 CDs, but he recorded many works several times. Among Hatto’s discs, 95 survey most of the standard repertoire for solo piano, along with many rarities, and an additional 13 document her performances of the concerto literature. And she is still going strong. Future projects include Ravel, Granados, Hindemith, Messiaen, and the complete Haydn Sonatas.

An excerpt from a long swoon on the site for online CD store MusicWeb International:

Joyce stopped playing in public in 1979. Hospitalisation, near-death encounters, and alternative therapies followed — to become the pattern of her existence. She returned to the studio, 3 January 1989, playing Liszt. Since then she has maintained an annual recording schedule, reaching a peak of intensity in 1997-99. No discernible pattern or progression of repertory is apparent. Rather a mêlée of works, of stark emotional juxtapositions, of dramatically differing linguistic, spiritual and style states seemingly as the mood and impulse takes her, of projects begun, taken up again, or completed. In the five days between 4th and 8th January 1998, for example, she ranged from Chopin (four ballades) and Beethoven (Hammerklavier) to Prokofiev; in the corresponding period the following year, 3rd-7th, from Saint-Saëns (Fourth Piano Concerto), late Beethoven, Mendelssohn (the two piano concertos [CACD-9070-2]), Rachmaninov (B flat minor Sonata [CACD 9079-2]) and Schumann to Schubert (last sonata) and Liszt, and back again to Beethoven (middle period sonatas). Prodigious. … Impossible, many cynics would uphold.

Impossible indeed. Just a week ago, a reviewer for Gramophone magazine put one of Hatto’s CDs — Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Studies — into his computer. iTunes, of course, as it always does, compared the tracks against the GraceNote database. It correctly identified the music as Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Studies but came up with the information that the pianist was in fact Lászlo Simon. The reviewer then listened to the Simon recording and Hatto’s, one after the other, and found that they sounded identical in every detail of performance. Computer analysis has confirmed that they might as well be different issues of the same performance.

Since then, investigation has identified several more of Hatto’s recordings that exactly match recordings issued by others, sometimes major labels and major artists. On Pristine Classical’s website you can read the details, look at the matching waveforms, and even listen to combinations of two recordings at the same time, Hatto on one track and the earlier release on the other, and hear how exactly alike they are. The Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music has also investigated.

Sometime yesterday, all the text disappeared on the website of Concert Artist Recordings, the label under which Joyce Hatto’s recordings were issued. It was there yesterday morning; by afternoon there were only blank template pages.

Today there is discussion on the newsgroups of the possibility that a woman named Joyce Hatto who died not in June 2006 but back in 2002 may be the pianist herself. The recordings issued by her husband began appearing in 2003. Someone in the group is traveling to the town in question today to check the official records.

Later: It occurred to me to wonder, if Joyce Hatto died in 2002, who gave the interview to the Boston Globe reporter in 2005. On reading the article more carefully, I see that it was a phone interview with both Ms. Hatto and her husband, and that the writer says that “[t]he pianist has a high-pitched, girlish voice …”. Oh dear.

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