Shoot the Pianist

Lovely New York Times piece by Denis Dutton on the Joyce Hatto story…

We normally think of prodigies as children who exhibit some kind of miraculous ability in music. Joyce Hatto became something unheard of in the annals of classical music: a prodigy of old age — the very latest of late bloomers, “the greatest living pianist that almost no one has heard of,” as the critic Richard Dyer put it for himself and many other piano aficionados in The Boston Globe.

Little wonder that when she at last succumbed to her cancer last year at age 77 — recording Beethoven’s Sonata No. 26, “Les Adieux,” from a wheelchair in her last days — The Guardian called her “one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced.” Nice touch, that, playing Beethoven’s farewell sonata from a wheelchair. It went along with her image in the press as an indomitable spirit with a charming personality — always ready with a quote from Shakespeare, Arthur Rubinstein or Muhammad Ali. She also had a clear vision of the mission of musical interpreters, telling The Boston Globe: “Our job is to communicate the spiritual content of life as it is presented in the music. Nothing belongs to us; all you can do is pass it along.”

Now it has become brutally clear that “passing along” is exactly what she was up to. Earlier this month, a reader of the British music magazine Gramophone told one of its critics, Jed Distler, that something odd happened when he slid Ms. Hatto’s CD of Liszt’s “Transcendental Études” into his computer. His iTunes library, linked to a catalogue of about four million CDs, immediately identified it as a recording by the Hungarian pianist Laszlo Simon. Mr. Distler then listened to both recordings, and found them identical.

Since then, analysis by professional sound engineers and piano enthusiasts across the globe has pushed toward the same conclusion: the entire Joyce Hatto oeuvre recorded after 1989 appears to be stolen from the CDs of other pianists. It is a scandal unparalleled in the annals of classical music…

At one level, this saga invites a sanctimonious response. I first came upon the story here, a site which enabled one to listen to a Hatto recording on the left channel of my stereo while hearing the ripped-off version in the right-hand channel. But I also felt pity for Hatto’s husband, whose original motive seems to have been compassionate rather than malicious. “Joyce was beginning to find playing very painful and making involuntary noises that would be too distressing for the listeners to hear,” he wrote in a letter obtained by the classical music magazine Gramophone and quoted in a Guardian report.

On a wider canvas, the iTunes aspect of the Hatto story highlights how difficult it is becoming to plagiarise. On the one hand, digital technology makes it easy to make perfect copies; on the other hand, pattern-matching technology makes it easy to spot the copying.