Fans of classical music know that there are great performers and there are the rest. But those with any experience listening to music also know that a lot of what you hear depends on context: if you think you’re hearing a great performer, you’re likely to appreciate their performance even more.
In addition to my activities writing about Macs and iPods, I also review CDs for MusicWeb, an independent British web site that publishes reviews of classical CDs. So I was quite amused this morning when I read an article on the web site of the British classical music magazine Gramophone, entitled Masterpieces Or Fakes? The Joyce Hatto Scandal.
Joyce Hatto is a late pianist who had recorded a handful of good discs then suffered from cancer, from which she died in June 2006. Somewhere in the past year of her life, recordings started spewing out from a small label, run by her husband, showing this woman to have a surprising range of talents, and Gramophone, along with other publications, began championing these recordings. But some months ago, posters to the rec.music.classical.recordings newsgroup began questioning the possibility that this woman could have played all these works, with styles that sounded so different. One poster said:
“After hearing so much about Joyce Hatto, I started purchasing some of her recordings. While nothing I have heard is bad (in fact, I am glad I bought these CDs), I have noticed something eerie: that the pianist playing the Mozart sonatas cannot be the pianist playing Prokofiev
or the pianist playing Albeniz. I have the distinct feeling of being the victim of some sort of hoax. Does anyone else share these feelings?”
Well, where I come from, you might say, “them’s fightin’ words”, but they incited some people to start looking more closely at this phenomenon. The results seem to be clear (as shown in the Gramophone article linked above): not only was this a hoax, but a purely monetarily-driven one, which simply took copies of some works, fiddled with others, and released them to a world of people who fawn after the latest sensation.All this raises many questions, of course. First, you have to feel bad for the professional critics who, hearing something they liked, not only lauded it, but created the context to fulfill their wishes with each subsequent recording from this pianist. Second, it shows that there are, perhaps, some recordings by lesser-known musicians that had been “pirated” and branded with the Joyce Hatto name which merit further attention. Had these same critics panned the discs that were the actual sources of the Hatto recordings?
Finally, and perhaps more important, it shows the futility of any kind of criticism. Well, you can’t copy books or movies, but for classical music where critics review not so much the music as the interpretation and performance, how much criticism is truly objective? Perhaps it is time for critics to work blindly, getting nothing but blank discs (or digital files) and reviewing these, then, only after the reviews are filed, finding out who the performers are. This would, of course, not be to the liking of the major record labels, for whom marketing is often more important than actual performances. (Granted, this is only really valid for instrumental performances; it is relatively simple to recognize a familiar voice in an opera or other vocal recording.)
There has always been criticism of critics, but nowhere other than the classical music arena does the concept of “great performances” or “reference performances” hold sway. These are the benchmarks against which other performances are measured, and they can be self-fulfilling: the more familiar you are with your benchmark, the more you will like it and reinforce its validity.
I tend to be somewhat obsessive about music, and, for some composers, actively seek out different versions of works I like in order to have a variety of performances, because no one performance can be considered final or perfect. I have never succumbed to unfailing appreciation for a specific artist (though Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is by far my preferred singer of German lieder), and tend to search broadly. It’s a shame for those who do think they found the new musical messiah, and many music publications–including Gramophone, who will have to make a serious mea culpa–will suffer from this type of hoax.
While it’s almost surprising this hasn’t happened before, there are actually a few reasons that make this case different from others. Joyce Hatto had not performed anywhere for a long time, so no one would have been able to compare her performance style with her recordings. Also, this was a very small label, and, while Hatto-mania may have blossomed, it certainly never went far enough to generate large sales. It seems that the greed behind this hoax was limited to a single person, the late pianist’s husband.
But with digital technology so prevalent, such that anyone can copy a CD and release it as their own, no one has time to check all the recordings that are released to make sure they are what they say. (Kudos to Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio for taking the time to analyze these recordings down to their waveforms; check this link for examples, both audio and visual, proving that the Hatto recordings are not indeed Hatto recordings.) While it is unlikely that there are many unscrupulous record labels who would consider perpetrating such a hoax, the cat’s out of the bag, and this may give ideas to others. Caveat emptor, right?