Saturday, March 3, 2007

Playgiarism, or Pulling a Rabbit Out of a Hatto

Remember Ervin Nyiregyhazi? Of course you do, even if you can't pronounce his name. He's the child prodigy pianist of the early 20th c. who suddenly disappeared from the scene in the 1920's, and re-emerged 50 years later to be recorded and acclaimed as one of the greatest pianists of all time. Here's a typical accolade: "Nyiregyhazi possessed a bigger tone than either Hoffman or Horowitz", says Gregor Benko in his notes to Nyiregyhazi's 1977 release of Liszt performances. Big tone or not, if you listen to these recordings with more than half an ear it's hard not to notice that a five decade sabbatical takes its toll on one's technique, or at least one's memory. There are enough wrong notes to make Artur Rubinstein look like a perfectionist, and plenty of tempos, dynamics and other features that have at best a rather insecure relationship to the score. Nor is the quality of the recordings quite up to showing off the alleged tone. (I haven't heard the CD transfers; possibly they were able to recapture some of what was lost on vinyl.) But the heck with all that; the emotional power of these performances does, in the end, emerge, and one is left with the impression of having been dragged through the dirt for one's own good. For all their flaws, we are happy to have these unexpurgated recordings of the septagenarian Nyiregyhazi - even if we are thereby occasionally forced to try pronouncing his name.

"Joyce Hatto" is name that even the phonetically challenged should not have much difficulty pronouncing, and a name that will always live in quotes - scare quotes, that is. Hatto was a concert pianist who became ill with ovarian cancer in 1976, at the age of 47. The good news is that she lived another 30 years, and passed away only last year. The bad news is that she was in pain much of the time, a fact that apparently marred all her later recording efforts with grunts and groans. Marred? I can't say that Toscanini's recording of the Verdi Requiem is exactly enhanced by his shouting instructions to the orchestra at various points, but this is not going to keep it from being one of the greatest recordings of all time. Were a few grunts and groans so bad? We'll never know. For it seems that her husband and recording engineer, William Barrington-Coupe, took it upon himself to deliver to us the expurgated Hatto, and replaced first the moans and groans, then the less perfect takes, and finally entire pieces with digitized, highly edited passages from other recordings. In the no-holds-barred (or is it no-bars-held-back?) world of disco and hip-hop this is called "sampling"; in classical music it is referred to by the classical name, plagiarism.

The deception, as is so often the case with plagiarism, was originally not without some twisted justification. Mr. B-C was concerned that his wife's virtues as a pianist had not received their due, and his desire to record her in her best light was frustrated by her unfortunate health issues. His determination to slog on in the face of reality caused him to slide down the slippery slope from applying musical bandaids to lifting entire recordings without credit. Thus is the road to moral turpitude spliced with Bach inventions.

It is one of the great mysteries of nature and music that so many wonderful musicians, and particularly pianists, live on and continue to make great music well into their 70's, sometimes 80's, occasionally 90's; and then there is Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who played his last recital at 99. So when B-C offered the world a series of technically brilliant recordings of a vast portion of the piano repertoire supposedly made by Hatto in her 70's, it was not exactly like the world turned upside down. I heard Guiomar Novaes perform in her 70's, and if memory serves me correctly she played, in addition to the usual helping of Chopin and such, some incredibly difficult set of variations on the Brazilian national anthem by Louis Moreau Gottschalk. The putative Hatto recordings were stunning, but B-C must have known that the classical world would not find their authenticity suspect on that basis alone.

No, what happened was that a Gramophone reviewer stuck one of the recordings on his PC, and was surprised to find that it automatically downloaded playback info for another recording of the same piece. Apparently Mr. B-C had the technical chops to edit the timing and tonality of some of the lifted material to match Hatto's original tracks, but insufficient acumen to deal with the world of Media Player or iTunes!
Just as students who plagiarize papers by downloading text from the Internet are often easily caught by teachers who have learned to use the same search engines they used, this technologically knowledgeable plagiarist was caught up short by the latest media technology. Technical tests by recording engineer Andrew Rose confirmed the aural impression that the recordings were indeed plagiarized.

There have been previous instances where classical recordings were long attributed to the wrong person, the most famous being a recording of Chopin's first Piano Concerto by Halina Czerny-Stefanska, another perhaps under-recognized female pianist that was mis-attributed to Dinu Lipatti. This was apparently an error, though. At this point, the entire set of Hatto recordings is suspect, and may constitute the most extensive case of plagiarism and consumer deception in the history of classical recording.

Although B-C states that he has "closed the operation down", "had the stock completely destroyed" and that he is "not producing more" (NY Times 2/27/07 p.E3) his claims for Hatto's recorded legacy can at this moment still be found on the web site of his tiny record label Concert Artist/Fidelio Recordings. This should remind us that he stood to profit from his misadventures, and could still do so if curiosity and speculative collecting are enough to generate a few sales. To my mind this casts some doubt on the bit about helping his wife win a well-deserved place in piano history; at the very least, one would normally recognize an additional motivation in generating profits. Who knows how much stock he really had, or has; only a few days earlier he had publicly denied the plagiarism allegation, and then he has suddenly obliterated every remnant of his work of many years? We have a right to be skeptical. And while he may deserve some sympathy for his predicament, and claims he is "tired" and "not very well", my feeling is that it is a bit too soon to let this go. "Now I just want a little bit of peace", says Mr. Barrington-Coupe. "Now..."? Having endured a whole week of criticism after years of plagiarism and piracy (he was actually engaging in both at once, a relatively rare situation) he just wants a little peace?

It is not a question of legal action, which one affected party (Robert von Bahr of BIS Records) has already declined to take. There is perhaps so little in the way of profit from these recordings (or should we call them "reissues"?) that suing for compensation may be a moot point. But this just emphasizes the difference between plagiarism and piracy. The issue with piracy, as with copyright violation, is denial of just compensation to artists, publishers, and others. No one objects to the fact that digital pirates distribute works more widely than would have been the case without them; they object to not making a profit from the distribution. The issue with plagiarism, which is not in itself a punishable crime, is strictly moral: credit was taken where it was no due, credit failed to be given where it was due, some number of public or private individuals were decieved, and the deception was carried out consciously and intentionally. If we let people like this off the hook so lightly, what do we do with the undergraduate who merely downloads a few passages off the Internet and submits them unattributed in an assignment? Smile and wag a finger, tut-tut-tut? Congratulate him on a heroic effort to hide his sources? Praise his integration of texts from three different web sites? No, we can't let the sob story about Joyce Hatto and her health issues cloud our judgment about long-term, systematic, commercial plagiarism. It is just not fair to the next student who gets an F for plagiarism in a college course if we let this infinitely worse case go with a shrug and a wince about Joyce Hatto's difficulties.

The Concert Artists web site sports bios of several other little-known artists, and we should now seriously consider whether there might be plagiarism issues in any other recordings presented by Concert Artist. The site is incredibly vague about exactly which artists it claims to have original recordings by, and which it merely distributes; I could not find a page with a catalogue other than works by "Hatto". But consider the Ozan Marsh page. This is a pianist who recorded, performed and taught widely, though he has little name recognition. According the web site, "
Concert Artist was indeed delighted that this considerable pianist agreed to make several recordings for the label. His unexpected death [at age 71 - H.A.M.] robbed us all of a fulfillment of these fascinating plans. However, Ozan Marsh did complete some sessions and we are preparing these for eventual release on Compact Disc." I'm sure the classical world is all ears, waiting for the release of these "sessions" by a student of Rachnmaninoff, Horowitz and Emil Sauer who was considered a notable exponent of Liszt. What treasures might lie within? (Pyrite? Squawck!)) Hey, here's a thought. I have a 1975 release on ABC Westminster Gold by a pianist named David Bean. I know of nothing else by him and can barely even find a Google reference to him. But the recording, which includes Liszt's Mephisto Waltz and Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H, is in what I consider the unbelievable class; technically, at least, it blows away most other performances I've heard of these extremely difficult pieces. (And let me tell you, he has a Big Tone.) Now, it is highly unlikely that B-C has a copy of this disk. But for a small fee and a percentage of future "royalties", I just might be moved to part with it. It could be easily digitized using one of those new turntables that automatically commits your records to digital format. I'd just like to meet the person who is going to listen to these "sessions" and say, "Hey, that's not Ozan Marsh, it's David Bean!" Right... A pair of parrots will play the Liszt B Minor Sonata by hopping up and down on a Steinway before that happens. Damn, if I just knew a recording engineer with a proper British name (has to have a dash in it) maybe I could actually get some money for my vinyl collection (hopefully before I have to move again).

But seriously folks, what is there to learn from an aging recording engineer who lost his sense of propriety and passed off other people's work as his wife's? I return to Nyiregihazi and Toscanini. And Rubinstein, and anyone else who has proudly issued a classical recording that falls short of sonic perfection but offers a memorable performance. Had B-C really believed in Hatto, had he trusted her musical gift and spirit and believed she had to offer what he claimed she did, he would not have felt compelled to take that first step and patch over imperfections and groans. You can EQ groans to the level of a minor nuisance, and the listener cannot always distinguish between a background groan and a moment of musical ecstasy anyway. The music, if it belongs in the annals of piano history, would have found its way there. It is now impossible to know what Hatto's virtues really were, at least without going to the original masters (if they exist). And that is a disservice to an artist who was probably at least worth listening to.

This suggests another point about our values: we have come to have so much faith in the technology behind modern recordings, as well as films and other media, that it is not at all shocking to find an example of someone who thought the road to great music was using technical means to perfect the end product. Art is about the intermediate product, the human performance, and technology never was or will be more than a way to make it shine.
This applies to other musical forms, including rock, folk and country music. No one with any taste would prefer to hear the latest technically perfect junk from Nashville to a scratchy old Hank Williams or Buck Owens recording. Rock guitarists and engineers can now control every harmonic and timbre emerging from a guitar, and singers are expected to be almost mechanically perfect in intonation and ensemble. But this kind of stuff will never mean as much as an old Stones record where the voices are neither in perfect tune nor perfect time, and the guitar distortion is controlled mainly by the idiosyncrasies of the pickups and the amps. Get back to the core values of creativity, expression and meaning, and we will not be tempted to head down the path of Hattoizing recordings.