Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tip of the Hatto

I decided to start my blogging career by musing about the irresistible Joyce Hatto story that popped up within the past week. The basic plot goes like this: Joyce Hatto, a fairly obscure British concert pianist whose career had been cut short by cancer in the 1970's, began recording much of the enormous classical piano repertoire in the 1990's and had left behind well more than 100 CDs when she died in the summer of 2006. Although the recordings were all privately issued by Hatto's producer husband, they had already become somewhat legendary because of the astounding quality of her playing of an almost impossibly broad range of demanding music. It now turns out to be likely that most, if not all, of these recorded performances were simply lifted from the CDs of a wide variety of pianists, some famous and some fairly obscure. You can catch up on the details all over the web; the remarkable Wikipedia is a good place to start. (Say what you want about Wikipedia, but it turns out to be a very useful clearinghouse for an emerging story such as this one. Every time I go back to the Hatto page on Wikipedia, there seems to be new information. There's certainly never been an encyclopedia that could function at all like this.)

Anyway, I think the story is a useful starting point for looking at how the classical music world functions and for thinking about how it is that we interact with music. First of all, it's a reminder that our reaction to a given musical performance isn't just about the music; it's not just about the notes on the page and it's not just about the sounds that result. There can be little question that one of the things that drew reviewers to Hatto's recordings in the first place is the sheer awe-inspiring size of her discography. That, coupled with her compelling biography (fighting cancer and age) would only naturally color one's listening. After all, so much of the virtuoso piano repertoire is of interest partially because we marvel at those who can play all those notes well. Part of the meaning of such music comes from our assumption that the performer has followed the rules and met the challenge fairly. When the subject in question is a pretty much unknown woman who is recording at a virtually unprecedented pace while fighting cancer and entering an age at which technique often begins to falter, well, that's bound to change how one hears. If it were just about the notes, no one would care if a pianist performing a Chopin etude had a pianist friend nearby who'd occasionally jump in and help out with an awkward leap. I've often joked with page-turners about having them help out with a few hard-to-reach bass notes when I'm playing difficult chamber music repertoire. If all that mattered was the musical sounds, it would be completely logical to have a page-turner help out in this way at times.

Likewise, we wouldn't care if we learned that some intricate counterpoint in a Bach fugue had been overdubbed in a studio. Although the degree to which edited recordings have affected our hearing and expectations is an important discussion for another time, the fact is that we listen to most of the classical repertoire with an important accounting for the human factor. So, almost all those who sat down to listen to Hatto recordings for the first time almost certainly brought with them the knowledge that she had an apparent command of virtually the entire rep. Think how different it would be to receive a recording of, say, the Goldberg Variations and learn that the pianist had devoted 20+ cancer-stricken years to that work alone. The biography would still be important as the listener would be more inclined to believe that the performance sprung from a certain intimate knowledge of that work, but the assumptions about the pianist's technical equipment would be quite different.

Of course, whether or not the early Hatto enthusiasts were biased by her bio when listening, there can be little question that the unique bio and discography helped bring attention to her in the first place. One of the great ironies here is that she is now much more famous because of the uncovering of fraud, and by strange extension, there are many little-known pianists who might now more receive more attention than they otherwise would have ever gotten. Think of it: there are now these pianists whose recordings came out years ago who have lucked into fresh and incredibly enthusiastic reviews of their work. Of all the conspiracy theories that have been floated, here's a particularly crazy one I've come up with. What if a group of pianists decided they could get more attention for their work by having reviewers listen to all their different recordings as if they were by the same person? Because of the superstar name-recognition fixation that afflicts the classical music world as much as the world at large, this would have the effect of letting many performers benefit from the superstardom of one. It's kind of the equivalent of having all of their performances hooked up with a big movie, except here the focus is entirely on their performances and they get attention from many serious pianophiles. Then, once the hoax is uncovered, all the performers still benefit by association with this mythical figure. Their playing made the myth work. Now, I don't believe this theory for a second and it would be extremely difficult to pull off without getting caught, but notice that the effect is not that different than if someone had planned things this way. Maybe Joyce Hatto and her husband even envisioned this as a way to bring credit to performances that they thought to be the best of the best. Doubtful, but that's about as optimistic a spin as one could put on this whole thing.

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