Gramophone Online reports that, in a letter to Robert von Bahr, owner of the BIS record label, Barrington-Coupe acknowledges that he passed off recordings by other artists as being by his wife, who died last summer at age 77 following a decades-long battle with cancer, in order to boost her reputation, as he felt her career had been unfairly overlooked.
Allegations of the fraud were first reported by Gramophone Online earlier this month, after an acquaintance of Jed Distler, a New York-based critic for the magazine, inserted a Hatto CD of Liszt's Transcendental Etudes into his computer and his iTunes software identified the recording as that of Lšszl‹ Simon on the BIS label. Distler alerted Gramophone, and when the magazine questioned Barrington-Coupe, he initially claimed he had no idea what was going on.
After allegations and suspicions piled up, Hatto's widower offered his explanation of the mystery in his letter to Robert von Bahr. The advent of compact discs in 1983 meant that the cassettes Barrington-Coupe recorded of his wife's playing were ignored by critics, he claimed, but it wasn't until years later that he had the capacity to produce CDs himself. At that point, he tried unsuccessfully to transfer the cassette recordings to disc, then decided to re-record her repertoire. Hatto was by that stage already extremely ill with the ovarian cancer which would kill her.
Hatto continued practicing regularly, Barrington-Coupe says in his letter (as reported by Gramophone), but she was in such severe discomfort that recording sessions were often marred by her grunts of pain. He then recalled how Elisabeth Schwarzkopf covered the high Cs for Kirsten Flagstad in the famous EMI recording of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. So, by his account, he sought out pianists whose sound and style were similar to those of his wife, and inserted small patches of their recordings to cover his wife's grunts.
He eventually stumbled across a method, he writes in the letter, that allowed him to digitally stretch the duration of the source recordings so as to disguise their source. So, he claims, he would use Hatto's performances as a blueprint and seek out recordings which resemble hers. Lšszl‹ Simon, for example, studied with the same teacher as Joyce Hatto and thus, Barrington-Coupe maintains in the letter, had a similar style and technique.
According to Gramophone, Barrington-Coupe wrote in the letter to von Bahr that his wife was not desperate for fame and knew nothing of the fraud. The British tabloid The Daily Mail however, alleges that Hatto, who was born on September 5, 1928, in northwest London, was likely involved to some extent in the fraud, as she gave false details about her life to the press. In interviews before her death, for example, she implied that she came from a middle-class background. But her grandfather was an ironmonger and her father, Horace, was a confectioner, rather than the antiques dealer she claimed he was.
Barrington-Coupe says that he has not made a large profit from the discs: the number of recordings sold by his company (including non-Hatto discs) since April 2006 is only 5,595, reports Gramophone. The number of recordings sold in the previous year was only 3,051.
British media have uncovered other shady dealings from Barrington-Coupe's past. He received a prison sentence in 1966 for failure to pay purchase tax; according to The Daily Mail, Coupe, then aged 34, was jailed for a year and fined Ô£3,600. Judge Alan King-Hamilton reportedly said, "These were blatant and impertinent frauds, carried out in my opinion rather clumsily. But such was your conceit that you thought yourself smart enough to get away with it."
James Inverne, Gramophone's editor, told PlaybillArts that while he has no reason not to believe Barrington-Coupe's latest version of the story, questions do remain regarding which recordings were actually made by Hatto. He points out that if the concerto discs were genuine it seems likely that by now orchestra musicians involved in the recordings would have stepped forward; none have done so, and no researcher has yet found any independent evidence of the existence of Ren_ K‹hler, the nominal conductor on the concerto discs. (At least one Hatto concerto release, of two Rachmaninoff works, is alleged to be a copy of a Sony Classical recording by Yefim Bronfman and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen.)
He added, "I don't think one knows what to expect in this story anymore. We certainly didn't expect these recordings to be fake. One doesn't expect this type of scandal to erupt in what is seen as the rather polite world of instrumental classical music!"
Whether Hatto's reputation can be salvaged to any degree depends largely of course on Barrington-Coupe and whether he will reveal which recordings were entirely hers. Until then, says Inverne, the greatest problem for music lovers is not knowing the truth about Hatto's legacy, which, he adds "is now mired in controversy and confusion."
When asked at least to reveal which recordings are legitimate, Barrington-Coupe told Gramophone, "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."
Von Bahr reportedly is not planning to take legal action. But in some respects the damage is already done. Inverne told PlaybillArts, "There is probably a cynicism in and around the classical music world now that wasn't there three weeks ago and people, and certainly critics, will have their antennae up for this. Our critics don't have anything to be ashamed of, but a certain amount of hoodwinking has gone on."