Joyce Hatto Piano Fraud, Wrapped Up Nicely by The New Yorker

It’s been out for the better part of the month, so this post is hardly news. But only yesterday did I get around to reading and hearing Mark Singer’s excellent article and podcast on the Joyce Hatto piano fraud.

This coverage is one-stop shopping on one of the summer’s best stories. Let’s sum it up:

  1. Joyce Hatto enjoys minor piano career but stops performing in the 70s.
  2. Her husband, a record producer, begins releasing “her” catalog of recordings, representing an astounding breadth of repertoire and a fevered pace of productivity despite Hatto being unable to perform in public due to cancer.
  3. Classical internet community falls in love with recordings and spunky narrative. Joyce Hatto is the best pianist you’ve never heard of! Why, it almost sounds as if she becomes a different pianist when she plays different pieces!
  4. Not too many people inquire too deeply into the recordings, or the names of the gifted-but-unknown conductors, or the impressive orchestras they lead in the Hatto piano concerto recordings. Mainstream music critics write gushing reviews.
  5. One day a listener slides a “Hatto” CD into iTunes and is puzzled when another musician’s name appears. A reluctant analysis ensues on sites like Musicweb.
  6. Music theorist Nicholas Cook and colleagues prove, through data visualization techniques, that Hatto’s recordings are technically identical other performers’ releases.
  7. Collectors, working collaboratively across the internet, begin to identify true performers.

The discovery of the fraud has, in turn, led to an even more lively discussion on technical and artistic points:

  • Why did the discovery have to be made through technical serendipity? Why hadn’t more people recognized the original recordings?
  • How much do context and backstory add to the enjoyment of art? Singer indirectly alludes to the idea of “Joyce Hatto’s Career” as a work of art in itself when he asks “did it make her happy?” Ms. Hatto died over a year ago, before the truth came out, and her health status prior to her death is not public information. We are left to speculate on just what she knew or condoned.
  • Can this be considered performance art, as has been suggested in the case of J.T. Leroy, the hot novelist with the courageous backstory. Though there’s a compelling difference between the Hatto fraud and the Leroy fraud. Laura Albert wrote her own stuff — she just lied about who “she” was.