Never heard of her before, do you?
From the Boston Globe:After recording 119 CDs, a hidden jewel comes to light
Fans and critics have long overlooked pianist Joyce Hatto
By Richard Dyer,
Globe Staff | August 21, 2005
Joyce Hatto must be the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.
Hatto, now 76, has not played in public in more than 25 years because of an ongoing battle with cancer. She was once told that it is ''impolite to look ill," and after a critic commented adversely on her appearance, she resolved to stop playing concerts.
Instead she has focused her prodigious energies on recording an astonishing collection of CDs -- 119, so far, on a British label called Concert Artists. A few years ago, Arthur Rubinstein's lifetime legacy of recordings filled 94 CDs, but he recorded many works several times. Among Hatto's discs, 95 survey most of the standard repertoire for solo piano, along with many rarities, and an additional 13 document her performances of the concerto literature. And she is still going strong. Future projects include Ravel, Granados, Hindemith, Messiaen, and the complete Haydn Sonatas.
The records have so far not received much media attention -- even, or maybe especially, in Britain. I myself stumbled across them by accident. The other artist extensively represented in the Concert Artists catalog is the great Italian pianist Sergio Fiorentino. After his death in 1998, the company began to release many of his performances that it had recorded, but never issued, decades before. On the website (www.concertartistrecordings.com
), I noticed that nearly everything Fiorentino recorded had also been recorded by Hatto. ''Who is she?" I asked my contact at the label, who turned out to be its director -- and the husband of Joyce Hatto, William Barrington-Coupe. He tucked in a sample Hatto CD along with a Fiorentino order, and I was hooked. At this point, I've heard only about a third of the Hatto CDs, but all of them are excellent, and the best of them document the art of a major musician. She boasts a fluent and all-encompassing technique. (The Godowsky studies on the Chopin Etudes, which stand among the supreme keyboard challenges, give her no trouble; she says she's been practicing them since she was 13.) The records are well engineered, and she uses wonderful instruments; still, her beautiful sound is her own.
Best of all is her musical imagination, which finds original things to say about the most familiar music. There is sadness, as well as glitter, in the Chopin Waltzes, for example; an operatic vocality and fluidity in her Mozart Sonatas; amazing individual characterizations of each of the Brahms Paganini Variations, made possible by an equally amazing pianistic command. Not one of the recordings that I have heard sounds hastily or carelessly prepared; not one of them lacks some special insight.
Recently I arranged to interview Hatto and Barrington-Coupe, who spoke from their home near Cambridge, England (''We found this house because we took a wrong turn," Hatto exclaims, ''and we think we are planning our lives!"). Concert Artists owns a recording studio in Cambridge, so Hatto has a luxury enjoyed by only a few pop stars -- she can go in and record, and rerecord, as much as she wants, whenever she wants.
The pianist has a high-pitched, girlish voice, and she speaks with the velocity of one of her Liszt etudes -- or like a teenager on the phone, but with far more to say for herself, and with as much detail as she brings to an etude. She has a lively sense of humor (''I'm going to be 77, but you can't measure time. Even though I buy all the wrinkle creams, I can still remember when I was 7"), and she will quote a Shakespeare sonnet and a remark of Muhammad Ali's (''Knock me down, and I will get up immediately") in the same spoken paragraph. And she has a very serious side. She will remark that you can't play Chopin without knowing what anguish is, and then share her memories of postwar Poland and the concentration camps.
Hatto grew up in a music-loving family. The only time she saw her father weep was when Rachmaninoff died in 1943. Her principal teacher was Serge Krish, a pupil of the legendary Italian pianist Ferruccio Busoni, but she regularly sought the advice of the great pianists who were active in her youth -- Alfred Cortot, in particular, but also Benno Moiseiwitsch and Clara Haskil, and it's a habit she kept up. When she got interested in Prokofiev, she sought out Sviatoslav Richter, for whom some of the music was written. And she didn't confine herself to pianists. After World War II, she played Beethoven's ''Hammerklavier" Sonata for the eminent German conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler, who wrote a ringing endorsement of her performance. She became a preferred interpreter of the composer Sir Arnold Bax. She credits her technique to devoted study of the comprehensive exercises in Cortot's ''Rational Principle of Piano Technique."
''I'm a Virgo," she explains, ''and I have to do things right. To reach my own standards, I needed to have a good technique -- when I was young, people told me I had two speeds, quick and bloody quick. You need to be as fast as the animals on the nature programs on television, but it all begins in the mind. You can watch a cat thinking about it before she jumps. You choose the sound you want in your mind and then you release from the piano; the mind controls everything -- you are always anticipating what you want to happen next, like a conductor does. Arthur Rubinstein said there is no 'method' for playing the piano, but there is a right way. The right way is to play with a relaxed arm; you don't poke into the keys. When I am playing well, I feel as if warm oil were pouring through my arm. Watch the monkeys in the rain forest, or a kangaroo -- they know all about relaxation. That's the way it is."
She recalls practicing Cortot's exercises during the Blitz. ''We lived near a munitions factory that was often a target. When the wardens sounded the signal, I would crawl under the piano." She is also a firm believer in the utility of the 100 studies in Clementi's ''Gradus ad Parnassum," and she still practices her Clementi. Cortot advised spending at least an hour daily with Bach, so that is what Hatto does.
Before her illness, Hatto enjoyed a successful if unspectacular career. She made her London debut in the early 1950s; she played extensively throughout Britain and made three tours of Poland. In the mid-1950s, she played all nine Beethoven Symphonies in Liszt's transcriptions in London. (''When I was done with them, I felt as if I were a better person than I was when I started," she says.) In 1972 she embarked on an ambitious project to play the complete works of Liszt in London; by 1976, when she became ill, she had played eight all-Liszt recital programs in Wigmore Hall (''Rather like a morgue, or a Chapel of Rest, don't you think?" she remarks of the atmosphere in London's most famous recital venue). She played in America only once, and she says, good-naturedly, that ''no one came, but it was nice to see my records at Sam Goody's."
Those would have been her first LP recordings, made for Saga -- music of Bax, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff, as well as Gershwin's ''Rhapsody in Blue" and an album of piano music from the movies, including ''Jealous Lover" and ''Intermezzo From the 'Spellbound' Concerto." Perhaps records like this, and her interest in Liszt, who was very out of fashion in the '70s, account for her neglect in the British musical press.
Her reputation in America may change because of the enthusiasm of one of her fans, William Sorin, who runs a small record company, IPO, devoted to important but underrecorded jazz and classical pianists (Sir Roland Hanna, Dubravka Tomsic).
Sorin may be the only person in this country who owns and has heard all of Hatto's records, and he plans to release her complete output here. (In the meantime, the discs can be ordered from the Concert Artists website or any of the British dealers recommended there.)
''For me," Sorin says, ''discovering her was like finding the Holy Grail. She has a beautiful sound, intelligence, and a scope of repertoire that is unrivaled. My favorites of her records are the Brahms discs, including the concertos, the Schubert, the Schumann. I think her playing of the Rachmaninoff solo piano music is unsurpassed, and I was bowled over by her Prokofiev Sonatas. The fact is, she plays everything well."
After his wife has left the room, Barrington-Coupe says, ''She doesn't want to play in public because she never knows when the pain will start, or when it will stop, and she refuses to take drugs. Nothing has stopped her, and I believe the illness has added a third dimension to her playing; she gets at what is inside the music, what lies behind it."
This human quality is also what runs through Hatto's sprightly conversation. For her, playing the piano is only a tool.
''What it really takes to be a pianist," Hatto declares, ''is courage, character, and the capacity to work. Shakespeare understood the entire human condition and so did the great composers. As interpreters, we are not important; we are just vehicles. When somebody says, 'What a marvelous piece,' that's the real thing, the true compliment. Our job is to communicate the spiritual content of life as it is presented in the music. Nothing belongs to us; all you can do is pass it along. That's the way it is."