In an amazing turn of events, Gramophone has learned of a letter sent from William Barrington-Coupe to the head of BIS records in which he makes a full confession of his wrongdoing in the Joyce Hatto affair. Gramophone subsequently contacted Barrington-Coupe, who confirmed that he stands by the letter’s contents.
It was Gramophone that first revealed how several of the recordings released by Barrington-Coupe under his late wife’s name were identical to other recordings by a range of pianists on different labels. A media storm ensued, with most of the world’s major media outlets reporting the scandal. Amidst it all, Barrington-Coupe denied all allegations of wrongdoing and insisted that he was present at all major sessions, and that the discs were all his wife’s work.
The truth, we now know from his own pen, is different. Robert von Bahr’s BIS records had one of the first identified cases of duplication – the 'Hatto' recording of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies exactly matched the soundwaves on Laszlo Simon’s BIS recording. And it was to von Bahr whom Barrington-Coupe wrote his letter of confession.
Although he has made clear that he is not 'seeking revenge', von Bahr kindly agreed to make the substance of the letter known to us, especially as the writer does not bind him to confidentiality. In the letter, Barrington-Coupe explains that he did indeed pass off other people’s recordings as his wife’s, but that he did it to give her the illusion of a great end to an unfairly (as he terms it) overlooked career.
This is the story, as Barrington-Coupe tells it.
The advent of compact disc in 1983 meant that the cassettes he was producing of his wife playing were quickly ignored by critics, as magazines such as Gramophone gradually made the transition to the new format. It was not until many years later, Barrington-Coupe writes, that he had the capacity to produce CDs, by which time Hatto was already in the advanced stages of the ovarian cancer which would kill her. He tried to transfer the cassette recordings to disc, but without great success. So the decision was made to re-record her repertoire.
Although she kept up a rigorous practice regime, Barrington-Coupe says that Hatto was suffering more than she admitted, even to herself. Recording session after recording session was marred by her many grunts of pain as she played, and her husband was at a loss to know how to cover the problem passages.
Until, that is, he remembered the story of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf covering the high notes for Kirsten Flagstad in the famous EMI recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Surely something similar could apply here, he reasoned. He began searching for pianists whose sound and style were similar to that of his wife, and once he had found them he would insert small patches of their recordings to cover his wife’s grunts.
As he grew more adept at the practice, he began to take longer sections to ease the editing process, and discovered, he says, by accident how to digitally stretch the time of the source recordings to disguise the sound. He would, he says, use Hatto’s performances as a blueprint and source recordings which were along the same lines (Laszlo, for instance, shared a teacher with his wife and so, Barington-Coupe says, had the same kind of style and technique).
The performances were hailed as superb in Gramophone and elsewhere, and finally his wife – fading fast – had the appreciation that her husband felt was rightfully hers. According to his letter, though, she did not hunger for fame and when told of the admiring article Jeremy Nicholas wrote for Gramophone early in 2006 (which had a great effect in concentrating critical eyes and ears upon her), she said: 'It’s all too late'.
Barrington-Coupe, however, says he did not know about the process whereby a computer’s media player seeks to identify a recording, until it was too late. That led to his downfall. Now, he tells von Bahr, he deeply regrets what has happened. He feels that he has acted stupidly, dishonestly and unlawfully. However, he maintains that his wife knew nothing of the deception. He also claims that he has not made vast amounts of money from what he has done – and that the number of recordings sold by his company (including non-Hatto discs) between April 2006 and the time of writing only number 5595. The number of recordings sold in the previous year was only 3051 (he confirmed these figures to Gramophone).
The question remains as to how much of this confession we should actually believe. It is in some ways a humane, romantic story. However, newspaper investigations following the first Hatto revelations have uncovered shady dealing from Barrington-Coupe’s past. He received a prison sentence in 1966 for failure to pay purchase tax. Whether this throws doubt on his confession now, made only after our revelations and in light of the fact that he continued to release 'Hatto' recordings after his wife’s death, is open to debate.
What music lovers will want, and what he must surely now provide (together, where possible, with witnesses who can verify), is a full and accurate list of which Joyce Hatto recordings actually feature Joyce Hatto, and which other artists were involved where appropriate. Only then will we know how good she actually was, and only then can at least some of her reputation be salvaged. When asked to do this, Barrington-Coupe replied that he didn’t want to go down that road, adding, 'I’m tired, I’m not very well. I’ve closed the operation down, I’ve had the stock completely destroyed, and I’m not producing any more. Now I just want a little bit of peace'.
As for that, much depends on how the industry reacts. Von Bahr tells Gramophone that he is unlikely to take action himself, as proving financial loss for his Simon recordings would be tricky. He has no idea, he adds, whether Barrington-Coupe is wealthy or not, and in any case, extracting damages from him might be very difficult. 'I’m not moved to seek revenge,' he says, 'but I’m very glad that the truth is at last known.'
James Inverne, Editor, Gramophone