The piano genius who never was: As a documentary on the 'greatest music fraud ever' is released, Joyce Hatto's husband reveals why he fooled the world with fake recordings
01:03 GMT, 5 April 2012
William Barrington-Coupe says that most of his neighbours in the tidy cul-de-sac where he lives alone don’t speak to him these days.
‘Not since all that business,’ he shrugs, eyes fixed on the middle distance.
A thin, rather elegant figure muffled against the cold in a tweed jacket and — he confides — two layers of trousers, he is seeing me to my car with a parting gift of ten pristine CDs by his late wife, the pianist Joyce Hatto.
Intrigue: Joyce Hatto, letf, and right, her husband William, who claimed she had made further recordings
Who wouldn’t want a generous, self-sufficient old gent — a keen gardener who is endearingly soppy about his rescue greyhound, Ellie — living on the same street He is cracking company, and charitable enough to volunteer as a visitor to the elderly and housebound in his town of Royston, Hertfordshire.
On the other hand, he did perpetrate what has been described as the ‘greatest ever music fraud’ by stealing the recordings of other classical musicians.
‘All that business’ is his polite allusion to the storm that erupted in the classical music world in early 2007 when Gramophone magazine revealed that Joyce’s lauded performances on disc weren’t really her own — but had been heavily supplemented by the work of unacknowledged pianists.
William, by then a widower, at first denied the story, but later wrote a partial confession in letters published in Gramophone. The scandal made headlines across the world, and so contaminated the Hatto name that it is now all but impossible to buy her CDs.
Former music producer and recording
engineer William, 81, underscores the fraud when he says of his present
to me: ‘I’ve chosen you ones with a high Joyce content.’
Now, the couple’s remarkable story is being made into a BBC television drama called Loving Miss Hatto, written by Victoria Wood.
Joyce, who died in 2006, was a
professional pianist who enjoyed moderate success at the beginning of
her career, but towards the end of her life had become crippled with
ovarian cancer and deep vein thrombosis.
She took to sleeping downstairs
within a few feet of her beloved Steinway concert grand piano, and
William — her sole carer — helped her to the keyboard every day so she
could continue playing.
Roger Chatterton's recording studio where Joyce Hatto's husband William Coupe created a catalog of 104 classical piano recordings which they then passed off as Hatto's work
But although she was seriously ill and had not performed publicly since 1976 when she was first diagnosed with cancer, she apparently devoted her last six years to recording an impressive range of classical pieces: some of them extremely challenging, such as Chopin’s Etudes.
The performances, released on William’s own Concert Artists label, slowly gained a cultish audience of music buffs, entranced by her elegance and technical virtuosity. Her obituaries were glowing: ‘a national treasure’, said The Independent; ‘among the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced’, said The Guardian.
The story of Joyce’s late flowering
seemed irresistibly romantic, and all the more extraordinary for her
relatively undistinguished career before she retired. Too extraordinary, as it turned out.
In early 2007, some months after her
death, New Yorker Brian Ventura noticed that the digital music database
used by the iTunes software on his computer to identify music told him
that a recording of Hatto was by an entirely different pianist,
Hungarian Lazlo Simon.
He contacted Gramophone magazine,
which asked an audio expert to analyse some of Joyce’s most celebrated
later recordings. The conclusion was damning. Her CDs were a patchwork
of other artists’ work, the notes digitally stretched or compressed to
disguise their origins.
William pictured next to the piano of his late pianist wife Joyce Hatto
So the question of how a terminally-ill woman in her 70s had managed to produce such a miraculous catalogue had a simple answer — she hadn’t. The editor of Gramophone magazine, James Inverne, declared there had ‘never been a music scandal quite like it’.
During this rare interview William dispenses coffee in the sitting room dominated by Joyce’s shrouded piano, and insists even now that all he did was insert sections of other musician’s performances to smooth out ‘problems.’
These, he elaborates, were certain passages when Joyce — debilitated by her illness — was unable to show her full capabilities. ‘I know what I did was wrong, but I’m not about to feel guilty for things I didn’t do,’ he insists, arms folded.
He shoots back an immediate ‘yes’ when asked if all the CDs bearing Joyce’s name include at least some of her work. But asked if her performances make up the majority of all the recordings, there is a very long silence. ‘I can’t say,’ he concedes, finally.
His written apologies to the chairman of BIS Records, Robert von Bahr, whose artists were among those he had plagiarised, and to the British Phonographic Industry, in 2007 and 2008, were less than total admissions of guilt. ‘It is self-evident that I have acted stupidly, dishonestly and unlawfully,’ he admitted then. ‘I regret having misled the consumers about the full nature of the Hatto recordings.’
Bahr decided against prosecuting. ‘Given the circumstances surrounding Hatto’s sickness and fate, I’m not moved to seek revenge,’ he responded, adding that he doubted much money had been made from the fraud.
William insists that he suffered ‘a thumping great loss’ from the CD sales (roughly 6,000 copies over the period in question) after production costs had been taken into account. ‘It certainly wasn’t about the money, because I didn’t make any. I live on my pension and that’s that,’ he says.
He becomes more opaque when trying to explain exactly what motivated him to tamper with the recordings.
‘It wasn’t that I was disappointed about her not getting the recognition she deserved,’ he says. ‘It wasn’t to grab any glory for myself. It wasn’t a case of publicity-seeking either.’
So was it simply an impulse to tinker, to improve, that ran out of control
His expression becomes a fraction
more wary. ‘You’re going to get me into trouble. I was never trying to
steal someone else’s work. I took performances that fitted tonally and
changed them, but I didn’t change Joyce’s performances on the CDs. It
was all about getting things to sound right.
‘If I think something is wrong, I
can’t let it go until I’ve made it better. I’ll perfect it or I’ll throw
it away rather than pass what I think is sub-standard.’ And he insists
that Joyce knew nothing of the ‘jiggery pokery’, but admits that his own
reputation is ‘in tatters’.
‘I’ve lost my friends, I bitterly
regret the whole thing — not because I was caught with my fingers in the
till, but because of the controversy and the damage it’s done to
Joyce’s name. She doesn’t deserve it. She was such an honest person,
quite devoid of guile. That’s the awful thing.’
A shrine at William's home in memory of his late wife with various music sheets, a cd and a rose
Loving Miss Hatto is expected to be aired later this year, and the story will become big news again. Although William has met researchers working for Victoria Wood, he had no say in the script and is ambivalent about the drama.
‘It is a very strange and uncomfortable feeling to know your life is being examined in that way. I don’t like it, but there’s nothing I can do about it.’
There are no photographs of the petite, always immaculately groomed Joyce on show in the house. ‘Too painful,’ he says. ‘Anyway, I carry her image in my heart. I miss her terribly.
‘We were ideally suited to each other, perhaps too well suited in that we were self-sufficient. We’d have loved children, but Joyce miscarried three times then needed a hysterectomy when she was 30, so there were no distractions from each other.
‘I always remember, coming home after a weekend away and Joyce saying, “Here we are, two little mice back in our nest”. That’s how it was for us.’
William was born in 1931 in Llanelli,
South Wales, to an insurance salesman and a nurse, but the family moved
to London when he was a boy. A devoted theatregoer since his teens, he
passed an audition to join the Old Vic’s repertory company when he was
17 but enrolled for National Service instead.
Joyce’s father, meanwhile, was a London baker who had a sideline in antiques and could afford piano lessons for his daughter.
The couple met when William, a
sergeant fresh out of an extended term in the Army, set up in business
as a concert promoter and agent with money left to him by his
Joyce, three years older, answered
his advertisement in The Times for musicians to represent. She had been
privately tutored in piano, having walked away in disgust from the Royal
Academy of Music after being told she would be better employed learning
how to cook a nice roast dinner.
The Hatto scandal has made it 'now all but impossible to buy her CDs'
So, how good a pianist was she really ‘Good, an old-fashioned kind of player, but a go-getter,’ says William.
He arranged concerts for her first in London, then throughout Europe and behind the former Iron Curtain from the Fifties onwards. Having fallen for one another, the pair subsequently married in 1956 and settled in Hampstead, North London. She supplemented her earnings with work as a pianist for the London Philharmonic choir and as a private teacher.
Reviews of her concert performances were mostly lukewarm. Typical was The Times’ assessment in 1953 that said she ‘grappled doggedly’ with Mozart, or Gramophone’s description of her ‘small, rather pallid’ interpretation of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no 2.
William, meanwhile, worked for various record labels and even set up his own, Lyrique, although none enjoyed huge success.
Struggling financially, he and four others began a business importing radios from Hong Kong to sell by mail order, but neglected to pay purchase tax.
In 1966, they were found guilty at the Old Bailey of evading tax of more than 1 million in today’s money. William was sentenced to a year in jail.
‘It was completely unjust,’ he says. ‘I was an innocent person. I can look you right in the eye and say that. ‘Joyce knew I wasn’t guilty, and she stood by me when I was inside — actually the prison governor approved of me and he and his wife invited Joyce for dinner.
‘But once someone’s been branded a felon, it’s a damned sight easier to convict him again.’
He hasn’t actually been convicted again, of course. Those record companies and artists who might have pursued him for copyright infringement have let the issue drop, deterred by his age and the difficulty of proving what was used where.
He, cheekily it seems, takes it as evidence that aggrieved musicians have greatly over-estimated their contributions to the recordings.
It is hard to summon too much ire for a widower who has clearly suffered much for his sins. Perhaps the scandal of the Hatto CDs is as much an indictment of gullible — or at least fallible — critics as it is the elastic morals of William Barrington-Coupe.