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Cherished music wasn't hers

Husband admits to doctoring CDs

Reclusive pianist Joyce Hatto died last year at 77. Reclusive pianist Joyce Hatto died last year at 77.

An international classical music scandal that has built steadily over the past week and flared across the Internet broke open with a confession yesterday. Now it seems the remarkable story of pianist Joyce Hatto was, indeed, too good to be true.

While she was alive, Hatto's recording career appeared to be nothing short of a miracle. In a tale that was equal parts "Shine" and "The Natural," the reclusive pianist, who stopped performing concerts in the 1970s because of illness, became one of the most prolific classical recording artists of her time, with more than 100 CDs to her name.

In 2005, Richard Dyer, then a Boston Globe critic, wrote that Hatto "must be the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of." Hatto died of cancer at 77 last year, having developed, late in life, an enthusiastic following of music buffs .

But allegations of plagiarism erupted after a classical music listener in New York sent an e-mail two weeks ago to Jed Distler, a critic for Gramophone magazine and Classicstoday.com, saying that he had loaded a Hatto CD of Liszt's music into iTunes on his computer. Instead of Hatto, iTunes listed the player as Lászlo Simon, a little-known pianist based in Germany. (iTunes uses a database to identify discs.) Alerted by Distler, Gramophone hired audio expert Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio to investigate. By analyzing and matching up sound waves, Rose has so far found evidence that about a half dozen Hatto recordings feature performances by other artists.

After days of denials, Hatto's husband, William Barrington-Coupe, admitted yesterday in an e-mail to one record label that he took recordings by others and issued them under Hatto's name on his own label, sometimes speeding them up or slowing them down . He said that he did it for his wife, whose career had been largely overlooked.

If all the allegations are confirmed, it would be the biggest case of artistic fraud in the classical music world.

"Trying to pull off something like this, and pull the wool over people's eyes to this extent, is still quite unbelievable," says Rose, who has also been hired by the Hyperion record label to look into allegations that more of Hatto's recordings were plagiarized.

Scandals involving uncredited music are not unprecedented. But they've typically taken place in the pop-music world, where there's more to gain financially. In 1990, Milli Vanilli had to return its Grammy awards after the duo admitted that they had not sung on their records.

Hatto's case stands out for the relative obscurity in which the pianist lived for decades, and for her dramatic -- perhaps too dramatic, in retrospect -- story, which captured critics' imagination, along with the quality of her CDs. In interviews, Hatto was charming, chatty, and full of anecdotes about playing the piano . Meanwhile her long struggle with ovarian cancer framed her career with pathos and, some said, only seemed to deepen her sensitivity to music in a vast range of repertoire.

Barrington-Coupe, who ran the Concert Artist label out of their home near Cambridge, England, was seen as Hatto's greatest booster. This week, the London Telegraph reported that he had spent eight months in jail for tax evasion in the 1960s.

Hatto made her London concert debut in the 1950s and performed mostly in England .

In 1970, Barrington-Coupe commissioned the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra in England to make a recording featuring Hatto of a symphony by Arnold Bax.

"She was very, very good as a solo player, and a very nice person, but she had a very doubtful sense of rhythm," said Vernon Handley, the orchestra's longtime music director, by phone yesterday. "The recording of the Bax was a tremendous labor, I'm afraid. One of the hardest records of my 179 discs."

The secret may have held for as long as it did because Hatto's CDs featured works that, in many cases, had been recorded hundreds of times by a range of artists. And instead of taking famous versions by pianists with distinctive, personal styles -- Glenn Gould, for example -- Barrington-Coupe used little-known recordings by less-traveled musicians.

Dyer stumbled upon Hatto a few years before her death and praised her recordings in the Globe. "The best ones are really superb," Dyer said by phone yesterday. "Which is why I'm still interested in them. I want to know who really made them now."

Anthony Fogg, the artistic administrator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was also impressed after hearing a Hatto CD of Debussy. Still, Fogg says, he did wonder about the constant flow of Hatto recordings.

"The thing I could never quite come to grips with is how any one pianist could have such a comprehensive repertoire," Fogg said yesterday. "It seemed like it was the entire output for piano. That any one pianist could accomplish this is pretty astonishing, let alone a woman in poor health."

Barrington-Coupe, who did not respond to an interview request yesterday, offered some explanation in the confession he e-mailed to Robert von Bahr, chief executive officer of Sweden-based BIS Records, which released the Simon album. Von Bahr agreed to read selections of that e-mail to the Globe, but would not provide a copy.

As Hatto's health worsened late in life, Barrington-Coupe wrote, she refused to take medicine. When she played, her grunts would mar the recording sessions. Trying to come up with a solution, he began by splicing short sections from other pianists into the passages where Hatto's grunting could be heard, but soon took longer and longer pieces.

"My wife was completely unaware that I did this, and I simply let her hear . . . the finished editing that she thought was completely her own work," Barrington-Coupe wrote, according to von Bahr.

Rose, the audio specialist, said that it is impossible that Hatto would not have known of the practice. " When you hear her interviews, it's hard to believe she wasn't in some way compliant," he said.

In one interview with New Zealand Radio last year, Hatto described her approach to recording . "I always go to a recording studio to perform," Hatto said. " If you go along thinking you're going to have mountains of editing, well that's no good, because you lose the spontaneity."

When the interviewer noted that she didn't have a producer for her recordings," she replied, "No, I don't. My husband is a very good critic. He has a better idea of sound than myself."

Now the search is on for the real artists behind the recordings. Rose has compiled his evidence at pristineclassical.com/HattoHoax.html.

Von Bahr said he spoke to Simon yesterday morning and urged him to take advantage of the publicity. " He has gotten more PR than he would get in five lifetimes," von Bahr said. "This is the time for him to go out and get those concerts."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com. For more on the arts go to boston.com/ae/exhibitionist.

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