Thursday, September 20, 2007

Elegant sleuthing

I love crime fiction, so it's no wonder that some of my favorite long-form non-fiction involves the meticulous dissection of a sham. The New Yorker has published two such pieces recently, one about counterfeit olive oil and one about counterfeit classical recordings. Tom Mueller's "Slippery Business" turned out to be rather frustrating—like most of the food-themed issue it was part of, actually—and I started skimming halfway through. Mueller just couldn't get me interested in the topic, perhaps because while he had a good villain in the shrewd, literally oleaginous Domenico Ribatti, his point just kept getting diluted, just like the oil he was writing about. (A nice coda the following week, however, when another Tom Mueller, ironically an exec in an American olive-oil company, wrote to complain that the journalist should have included a disclaimer that the two men are not related!)

The main themes of Mark Singer's "Fantasia for Piano," about the Joyce Hatto scandal, are similar to the one in Mueller's piece: The elaborate lengths to which some people go to deceive others, and how hardcore fans and professional critics can be fooled by the "product" (olive oil, piano recordings) they so passionately obsess over. This is compounded by the fact that in both cases said product is a symbol of sophisticated taste—though olive oil's become so commonplace that, like chocolate, coffee or tea, the challenge is now to make it re-"elitize" again by focusing on vintages and areas of origin. (This is why it's so fun reading about those deceptions: What's at stake usually is punctured ego rather than, say, the entire life savings of the poor, uneducated victim of a scam artist. But then The New Yorker isn't really interested in the grittier issues affecting the little people.)

Anyway, the Hatto scam is wonderful: In the ’00s, some dedicated fans of piano music became entranced by a British interpreter who, in her seventies, had started cranking out exceptional recordings on a label run by her husband, the wonderfully monickered William Barrington-Coupe ("Barry"). Long story short: Turns out Hatto didn't play on those albums—her husband just recycled relatively obscure recordings by other, better pianists and pass them on as his wife's.

A striking element in the story is that while Joyce Hatto was interviewed by various classical-music outlets, nobody checked with the people she supposedly played with. On some of her recordings, she was backed by a seemingly non-existent orchestra, but nobody—nobody!—looked into it. And this was in the mid- to late ’00s, when everything already was only a Google search away. No basic reporting was done, and there were no corroborating secondary sources in any of the Hatto profiles other than Barry.

Another great bit is that the switcheroo was first exposed by a New Yorker who in February 2007 put his newly purchased Hatto CDs in his iTunes, and another performer's name popped up from the Gracenotes database. Does this mean that no Hatto fan before that one had listened to her on a computer?!? It boggles the mind.

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