How I did it: The niche magazine that broke 'a story in a million'

There had been murmurings on the web for a while, but unsupported suspicions. How, wondered the scattered disbelievers, could any pianist – let alone one who had been restricted from playing for decades by a debilitating cancer – master such a wide range of repertoire as Joyce Hatto? It shouldn't be possible, at least not for a pianist almost nobody had heard of until Gramophone and others began reviewing her discs with awed delight.

There was something special about this story, whichever way one looked at it. Either the late pianist was the genuine article, an inspiring testament to the human spirit, or she was a faker on a scale unknown in the world of classical, or any other, music.

Yet, despite appeals in the magazine for any evidence from her detractors, the first firm lead came by accident, from a puzzled reader. He had played a Hatto disc through iTunes and the internet-based database of track names and composers had given him the name of a different pianist. The reviewer he contacted, Jed Distler in New York, found the same – and again with a second disc.

Switching on my laptop the next morning to see an email from Jed entitled 'Joyce Hatto question", outlining 'a slightly disturbing coincidence", I could feel journalistic muscles twitching that I frankly hadn't expected to use at Gramophone.

'Proof!'I could hear the lawyers yelling without even asking them. I knew I needed proof. I also knew all too well the potential hit for getting this wrong, or getting it wrong enough that it wouldn't stand up in court.

 

Detectives investigating a crime, at least in detective novels, always seem to look for fingerprints first. That can be done with recordings, too. We commissioned Andrew Rose in France, one of the world's leading audio technicians, to check the soundwaves of discs against each other. At the same time, Jed in the US and other critics here – including office staff – began subjecting other Hatto discs to naked ear tests. We concentrated on her Godowsky interpretations for the simple reason that almost nobody has recorded them.

News came back from France. Her Liszt disc was definitely the same recording as one on the BIS label with a different pianist. Her Rachmaninov was proving trickier. Meanwhile, our expert listeners weren't getting far with the Godowsky – it sounded nothing like any of the others. We needed more. One 'coincidence'could be a production mistake.

Then came the breakthrough, courtesy of Rose's business partner in the UK. He realised that Hatto's producer – her husband William Barrington-Coupe – had, with almost unbelievable audacity, often cunningly manipulated the sound of the original recordings to disguise them. They managed to unpick the tamper trail, and we had our proof. Further evidence came from experts at the University of London, who had coincidentally uncovered another Hatto replication using their new audio comparison system.

Barrington-Coupe was smooth and unruffled on the phone. Apparently puzzled, he denied any wrongdoing and appealed for anybody who could shed light on matters to come forward. We published our story on the web, then in the magazine, and the world's media descended. They went even crazier when we discovered and published the gist of Barrington-Coupe's sensational, if partial, confession letter.

The idealist in me wishes none of this had happened. That Hatto (whom I now believe was in on the deception) had been a great inspiration rather than a con. The journalist in me knows this was a story in a million, and I'm proud of the way the editorial team pushed to get there first and report it well. I'm afraid I rather enjoyed it.

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