beyond belief

About a year and a half ago a woman who had been described as a “brilliant pianist whose career was cut short by cancer” in an obituary published by the Guardian UK caused a posthumous storm in musical circles. Considering her 100 odd recordings were done over more than 20 years when Joyce Hatto was in seclusion, such a contradiction in terms should have been apparent.  Allegedly she reached unfathomable heights in pianism AFTER she left the public stage.  Too bad she didn’t survive a few months more when the mystery started to unravel of HOW she was able to churn out so many high quality performances, with differing styles and even with orchestras that apparently no one saw going in and out of her studio.

This solution was made surpringly simple– one of her recordings of the Liszt Trancendental Etudes matched the waveform of another recorded artist. And the rest was history, not to mention egg on the faces of quite a few normally intelligent people who believed the fairy stories about her. I myself remember reading about this fantastic pianist a few years ago and wondered about such a phenomenon. She in fact, had the ambience of a Clara Haskil, a really great pianist that perhaps people somehow associated her with. After all, Haskil had severe physical problems herself. But the difference is that Haskil was a great musician on piano and violin before she was dogged by such misfortunes.

Haskil also appeared before the public in her latter days and recorded in verifiable circumstances. She had a recognizable style as well, what is called “touch” on the piano.

What should have been apparent to sensible people was the necessary infrastructure that was missing from Hatto. Playing Transcendental Etudes by Liszt doesn’t drop from trees. There is the give and take with the public that great artists like Arrau, Rubinstein and Horowitz hone their craft by repetitions of the same works over decades. They grow with their audience and the listeners grow with them.

It is very difficult especially in these days to pass for something one is not. Maybe in the past it was easier. One of my teachers studied in the 40’s with a woman who Russified her name to Olga Samaroff. A person with more self-promotional abilities than musical acheivement, she got as far as even marrying Leopold Stokowsky. Roslyn Tureck (also of questionable musical achievement) one of Hickenlooper-Samaroff’s pupils was advised by her to memorize the Goldberg Variations and present them in New York. At that time, REAL scholars who were reviving Baroque music such as Wanda Landowska had the right comeback for her: “Isn’t it wonderful? You can play Bach your way and I play him HIS way!”

Scholarship is more difficult to prove but feigning an accent when one is Chicago born (piahno) and failing to voice the first S in Silbermann (it’s German!!), the pianomaker of Bach’s time on one of Tureck’s last recorded interviews, shows even educated musicians are not so perspicacious. But as I was already prejudiced about her, she sounded simply ridiculous.

I believe more than ever, thanks to instant communication, quality will out and triumph.  Otherwise, “don’t feel bad if you’ve been had”. I didn’t question Hatto a few years ago. I also suspended commonsense and accepted what was “too good to be true”.


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