Grand Theft Piano

On a warm may evening in the town of Royston, England, William Barrington-Coupe is inside his tidy brick house, struggling with an overdue tax return. Heavy net curtains block the light out of a living room littered with piles of papers, handwritten bills and old letters. He's got the TV on, "for company," he says. An antique Steinway grand piano dominates the room. It is a somber scene made all the more sad because the Steinway belonged to Barrington-Coupe's wife, Joyce Hatto, an acclaimed pianist who died in this room almost a year ago. Barrington-Coupe is obviously still heartbroken. He slips one of Hatto's CDs into the stereo, and the sound of a world-class pianist bounces off the low ceiling. Close your eyes and she's here, slim hands spanning the keys. "Listen to that," he says, smiling, tears in his eyes. "She practiced until it was perfect. You won't hear a more musical performer." Except for one problem—Joyce Hatto was a fraud.

Not a small-time fraud, either. Hatto may have been the fortissimo version of Milli Vanilli. When she died of ovarian cancer at 77, she had released 119 albums—Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin—almost every one of them now suspected to have been plagiarized. Put on a Joyce Hatto CD and you'll really hear Yefim Bronfman, Ian Hobson, Vladimir Ashkenazy and dozens more, carefully copied using the latest music-editing technology. Even the experts were fooled. In 2005 Boston Globe critic Richard Dyer called her "the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of." The irony is that ever since she was exposed three months ago—thanks to a clever CD-recognition program used by iTunes—many people have heard of her, and her allegedly plagiarizing producer: her husband. Theirs is a story of blind love and overarching ambition, as well as the questions it raises about the issues surrounding digital recording and audio plagiarism. Technology made Hatto's career, but it also destroyed it.

Hatto was actually a good pianist, if not an extraordinary one. In the 1950s she received lukewarm reviews for performances in London and Poland. Later she made the occasional recording and taught piano to private pupils. Barrington-Coupe, in an interview with NEWSWEEK—his first with an American publication—admits that for most of her life Hatto was seen as "a musical non-entity." She retired from public performance in 1976 due to illness, but in the 1990s she brought out a series of new recordings on her husband's small Concert Artist label. In Barrington-Coupe's telling, Hatto decided to record at the company studio whenever she felt well enough. She laid down a commercial CD repertoire of astonishing breadth and quality. Almost overnight, she became "a cult figure, a cause célèbre," says Gramophone magazine editor James Inverne. At the time of Hatto's death in June 2006, Concert Artist had released 119 CDs in her name. A British newspaper obituary proclaimed her "one of the greatest pianists Britain has ever produced."

The ovations lasted less than a year. When New York financial analyst Brian Ventura loaded Hatto's version of Liszt's Etudes into his computer, the online Gracenote database recognized it as Hungarian Laszlo Simon's 1987 recording of the same piece, based on the fact that both recordings were exactly the same length—down to one seventy-fifth of a second. Ventura e-mailed the composer and pianist Jed Distler, who had reviewed numerous Hatto discs for "Ten out of the 12 tracks were disturbingly similar," he says. "The thing that really made me smell a rat was on track 10. One note, the middle C, was out of tune—on both recordings." Distler e-mailed Inverne, who commissioned Paris-based sonic expert Andrew Rose to analyze the Hatto recording. Rose confirmed the two tracks were identical, but the Hatto track was manipulated to disguise its true origins. "It was as though someone had tried to put a false beard and glasses on the recording," Inverne says.

At first Barrington-Coupe denied any knowledge of plagiarism. He told Inverne in a phone conversation in February, "I don't know how to explain it." Later, however, he wrote to the producer of the Laszlo Simon original, BIS Records CEO Robert von Bahr, apologizing profusely. He asserted Hatto's innocence, claiming he had initially spliced other performances into her originals in a desperate attempt to cover up her cancer-related gasps of pain. "I'm desperately unhappy that foolish decisions I made then to make [Joyce's] last months happier have dragged her name into the mire," he wrote.

But as in all cover-ups, the question is: what did Hatto know and when did she know it? If she didn't know, as Barrington-Coupe still maintains, she must have been recording tracks in good faith, believing her husband was then releasing her performances unadulterated except for standard editing. Most experts say that's impossible. If she had recorded all those concertos, Barrington-Coupe would have had to employ a large orchestra. "But if that's the case, why hasn't anyone from the orchestra come forward?" says music critic Christopher Howell. What's more, the British critic Jeremy Nicholas once received a letter from Hatto that read, "By the way I have reworked the Godowsky. You know me, I was never satisfied." "That means she had to have listened back," says Inverne. "And if she listened, then she knew. It's like your handwriting."

In the end, only Barrington-Coupe knows the truth. He can look frail, a shock of gray hair framing a friendly, creased face that is hard to distrust. But he has his own shady past. In 1966 he was convicted of evading about $1 million in taxes in what was then the most expensive trial ever at London's Old Bailey court. Once you get him talking about his current scandal, he quickly becomes evasive, ducking under ambiguities and angrily raising his voice when confronted. At one point he claims that the mammoth Steinway across the room was moved to the studio whenever Hatto wanted to record. When an instrument is moved, expert tuning is required. Who was his piano tuner? "I've forgotten the man's name," he says. Would it be written down somewhere? The piano tuner, he says, is "very quiet ... one of those people who doesn't answer his telephone ... He's not an easy man to get hold of." When asked where Hatto made her last recording, which he claims took place in December 2005 or January 2006, he names the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge. But the manager there, George Unsworth, told NEWSWEEK, "I have checked our detailed diary and can find no trace of any recording that could be traced back to Barrington-Coupe or Joyce Hatto during those months." Faced with this denial, Barrington-Coupe e-mailed a NEWSWEEK reporter, "I was actually testing you out." He then accused the reporter of joining a "witch hunt" against him.

Whether the law will join that hunt is still an open question. Gordon Williams, a media and entertainment lawyer in London, says any case against Barrington-Coupe would be civil, not criminal. "The copyright owner—in this case, the record companies—can choose whether or not to bring the case," he says. "The performer would also have a cause of action if his or her performance has been used without consent." BIS Records' von Bahr has decided not to pursue a claim. But Barrington-Coupe says he's ready to rumble. "I'm not afraid," he says. "It's not such an easy prosecution, because who's lost? They haven't got the answer. If they had, don't you think they would have brought the case already? Who has been hurt? Who's been damaged?"

The pianist Paul Kim, for one. His recording of Olivier Messiaen's "Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus" appears to have been ripped off and remarketed as Hatto. "We'd be quick to forgive and to try to understand what might have led him and his wife to do this," the New York-based pianist told NEWSWEEK. "My recording series of the complete piano works of Messiaen was the biggest undertaking of my musical life. It took over a quarter century of rigorous study, performance and, eventually, recording. For someone to take such an important work and so blatantly claim it as her own is totally baffling."

It might not end there. Ernst Lumpe was producer and discographer of the late Italian pianist Sergio Fiorentino, who was signed for a time to the Concert Artist label. After Fiorentino's death in 1998, Barrington-Coupe claimed to possess a number of previously undiscovered Fiorentino recordings. He released them on the Concert Artist label. "I have certain doubts with some of them," says Lumpe. "One in particular is most likely not played by Fiorentino." But he probably won't sue either, explaining, "I personally haven't had any harm from it."

Hatto may be gone, but Hattogate will clearly reverberate in the classical-music world for years. "The most lasting and profound thing that will come out of this story is the questions it raises about authorship," says Inverne. Christopher Howell, himself a pianist, puts it more simply: "It's a bit disconcerting to think that your performance might be improved by someone just twiddling a knob." Yet editing has long been accepted practice in the industry. So what's to stop any old piano tinkerer with a minidisc from selling digitally doctored music? Style, says Distler: "You can't splice style." In his view, Hattogate succeeded only because, for all his faults, "Barrington-Coupe has exquisite taste in pianists." Except, of course, for the one he married.