Thursday, March 01, 2007

Classical Fraud

[posted by Callimachus]

The headline reads: Latest News: "I DID IT FOR MY WIFE" - Barrington-Coupe confesses. Sounds juicy! Where do you go to find the story?

Believe it or not, flip to the classical music section -- if you can find it. Classical music has fallen so far out of the pop culture mainstream it no longer is printed on the maps. Which is a shame because there's a fascinating dust-up underway in the trade.

It concerns a stack of piano recordings under the name of one Joyce Hatto, not an unknown, but one considered to have essentially left off performing due to crippling illness more than 30 years before her death last year.

But her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, owner of a recording studio in Cambridge, England, kept recording her and released her works in the 1990s.

By the time of her death, critics were acclaiming her as "the greatest instrumentalist almost nobody had heard of" [Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe].

The publication Gramophone, which is intimately wrapped up in the story, picks up the thread:

It was around a year ago that Gramophone’s critics began to champion this little-known lady, whose discs – miraculous performances, released by her husband William Barrington-Coupe on the tiny label Concert Artist – were notoriously difficult to get hold of. Such was the brilliance of this pianist across Liszt, Schubert, Rachmaninov, Dukas and more in a dizzying range – that it was worth making the effort to seek out Concert Artist to get these discs, and they became much sought-after. By the time she died in June 2006, Joyce Hatto was not only a sudden widespread success, she was a cause célèbre. To love Hatto recordings was to be in the know, a true piano aficionado who didn’t need the hype of a major label’s marketing spend to recognise a good, a great, thing when they heard it.

There were persistent rumors that this all was too good to be true. But the audiophiles pushed back against it hard, embracing the Hattos as masterpieces.

On February 15, the story took an odd turn, when Gramophone's website published an article by editor James Inverne questioning the authenticity of at least several of Ms. Hatto's performances. "Several days ago, Gramophone critic [Jed Distler] decided to listen to a Hatto Liszt CD, of the 12 Transcendental Studies," Inverne wrote. "He put the disc into his computer to listen, and something awfully strange happened. His computer's player identified the disc as, yes, the Liszts, but not a Hatto recording. Instead, his display suggested that the disc was one on BIS Records, by the pianist László Simon." Upon retrieving Simon's disc from his collection, Distler said, "they sounded exactly the same."

Of course, it is always possible that the computer's iTunes music recognition software misattributed the disc ....

So the tech guys were called in. Their verdict? “Without a shadow of a doubt, 10 of the tracks on the Liszt disc are identical to those on the Simon.” The other two études were by another pianist, Nojima, from a 1993 recording. They even posted up the waveform evidence on their site.

What interests me in this story is not Hatto or Barrington-Coupe. What interests me is László Simon, Nojima, Yefim Bronfman, Carlo Grante -- the various toilers in the thankless mills of classical recording, who never will taste the deliquescent fruits of Kid Rock's luxury tour bus and groupies. They've just discovered their recordings were hailed as works of pure genius -- so long as they were thought to have been done by a cancerous old Englishwoman.

The recordings are authentic: They are real things. Whatever artistic qualities they had, they still have. Yet now they've been thrown back into the discount bin in the back of Sam Goody. What was different? What happened?

The counterfeiter doesn't fake an artifact. The artifact he makes is real. What he counterfeits is a setting: The circumstances of its making. Two men on the same day take paper and ink and make a $100 bill. One is a mob financier in Paterson, the other is a U.S. mint employee in Philadelphia. The difference is not their work, which may be indistinguishable, but the circumstances of its creation.

Able art forgers have painted works that have been hailed by critics as lost masterpieces from, say, Vermeer. But when exposed as modern-day creations, they are dismissed. Yet it is the same painting. If it was good enough to hang in a museum yesterday, why not today? Do the circumstances matter more than the art?

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant, they too have their story.

If you're old enough, you remember the meditative piece that opened with that. It was called "Desiderata" and it was a favorite of late '60s-early '70s flower child types. It was "an unsigned document found in Old St. Paul's Church, Baltimore, dated A.D. 1692" according to most versions I've seen, including the one my mom had hanging on her wall. She was too old to partake of the 1960s directly, but she did so enthusiastically, and vicariously, in part no doubt as rebellion and disgust against my father, whose interests and sympathies lay elsewhere.

As the inimitable Barbara Mikkelson sums it up, the beauty and quiet strength of the "Desiderata" is bound up in the "A.D. 1692."

It's comforting to believe that some truths are universal, that the beauty of the human spirit is unchanging, ever present, and inviolate. A poem rife with applicability in today's world being found in a church so many centuries ago supports those comforting beliefs. That it's an unsigned piece makes it all the more beautiful: one sees these inspirational words as the anonymous writer's gift to the world. His humility kept him from signing it ... and maybe there's another lesson for us in that.

So does it matter that this is a mistake, and that the "Desiderata" was written in 1927 by a lawyer and wanna-be poet named Max from Terre Haute?

There was no forgery here. The misattribution came about via a series of understandable errors and acts of laziness. However, the mistaken belief that the work was 17th century, and thus public domain, means my mother's reprint of it on the wall was in fact a copyright violation, and there have been lawsuits by Max's heirs, including one against the Grammy-award-winning (1971) vocal recording of "Desiderata."

What do you do with great forgeries that have been taken as authentic for sufficiently long periods to have influenced the history of the world? Paul warned against forged letters in his Epistles, and modern textual analysis strongly suggests that while most of "Paul's letters" were written by the same person, a few probably were by another writer. Did some of the forgeries he warned against slip into the canon?

The cycle of ancient Celtic poems by Ossian had enormous influence on the literary tastes of the late 18th century, and shaped the works of living poets like Thomas Gray. Napoleon, among other figures, was passionate about Ossian. Franz Schubert set some of them to music.

But "Ossian" turned out to be James Macpherson, the Scottish poet who claimed to have translated the works from ancient sources. In fact, he collected much traditional material, but shaped it into a false unity and gave it so much of his own stamp and filling that "Ossian" is a work of the 1750s, not prehistoric times.

The letters of Phalaris were held up by some during the English renaissance as among the finest examples of classical writing. Yet they turned out to be late classical forgeries that mention towns and imitate authors which did not exist in the time of Phalaris. Yet are they less for having been written in the second century A.D., rather than in a time not long after Homer?

Perhaps this little scandal will push classical music back into the mainstream of pop culture. It's already attained enough attention to rate a spoof.

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