Friday, 23 February 2007

A very English mystery and the nature of criticism

I have an interesting mystery story to recount today, and one which has caused me to reflect on the whole business of critics and criticism. But before I do let me institute what I hope will be a recurrent theme, of delivering unsolicited praise where praise is due. I have a local computer shop, who in the four or five years I have known them, have unfailingly delivered the goods, whether it be in repairs or upgrades. This time, they have doubled the speed of my computer, improved its graphics no end and boosted my Mac for a very modest price. If you're in the Swansea area try Swan CD Limited and tell them I say they are a good thing. My only reservation as a conservationist is that their logo looks like a swan being bisected from the rear by a chainsaw.

Now to the mystery. I was planning to write on lots of things this week but then the extraordinary business of Joyce Hatto emerged. Although this is basically a tale of classical music it has given rise to some questions in my own mind about critics and criticism.

The background is this. About this time last year, a number of classical music magazines (including the Gramophone which I have read without fail for twenty three years) started to lavish praise on the piano recordings of one Joyce Hatto. It was an edifying tale of a woman, now in her 70s, who had given up professional public piano playing a quarter of a century earlier on account of cancer. Yet now she was releasing discs through a small record company owned by her husband. And what discs! The critics stumbled over themselves with fulsome praise at this triumph of persistence and talent over illness and neglect. The quality was astonishing: how did an elderly woman, with this thirty year battle with cancer, manage to grapple with the most athletic works in the repertoire? The quantity was also astonishing. At the time of her reported death she had ‘recorded’ around 100 discs. (As will become obvious any mention of Ms Hatto requires much use of the word ‘reported’ and many inverted commas). There was also the matter of the range. There seemed to be nothing in the classical repertoire from Bach to the notoriously spiky Messiaen that she was not able to play as well, if not better than the best. As one critic said: ‘Joyce Hatto must be the greatest living pianist that almost no one has ever heard of.’

Anyway, a week ago the story exploded. You can read it all on the Web and a good lead is the Wikipedia article on her. Someone attempting to put one of her discs on to Itunes found that it was recognised, but as being by someone else. Very soon, the web was buzzing over which of her discs had been copied from which other recording and now there doesn't seem to be a single genuine Joyce Hatto recording known. They appear to be all borrowed - and slightly tweaked - from other discs. It is, we are told, the greatest fraud/hoax in the history of classical music recording. What the motives were (or even who did it) is at the moment unclear. More revelations are promised.

Now, I am a writer, not a musician, but there are aspects of this that have intrigued me. Central to the story are the critics, who are frankly, trying to keep a rather low profile at the moment. They are the ones that told us how great this woman was, how we should buy her discs and how revelatory her playing was.

Here I need to say I have no axe to grind: such critics as I have had, have been kind to me. But several points do arise.

1) The critics were naive to the point of negligence. In hindsight, that there was fraud or something like it, going on should always have been considered possible. One or two comments, should have set alarm bells ringing. It was, we read, very hard to pin down any Hatto style; she was clearly such a modest pianist that she let the music speak for itself. Hmm. And did no one really question where the great works for piano and orchestra that were being released actually been recorded? A hundred musicians do not fit into a garden shed. And why were there no recent accounts of her playing? Why so few interviews? Was it really just modesty? From the Christian point of view perhaps the most revealing comment was something to the effect that ‘we don't expect fraud in the music business’. Sorry guys, sin makes its ugly way everywhere.

2) The critics failed at the task they claim to be best at. They signally failed to notice that the recordings were identical to existing ones. Now if the pirated material had come from obscure Bulgarian pianists, one might have forgiven the oversight. But the ones she/he faked, often aren't obscure. I have a couple: the list of pianists hijacked is starting to look like a who's who in modern pianism (Previn, Ashkenazy, Hamelin to name three well-known names). In some cases, there were only three or four other versions of a piece around. Yet these men, (and it is mostly men), who regularly blind us with detailed references to the record catalogues and intimidate us by their erudition, failed to notice that these were one and the same.

3) The critics appear to be - how shall we say it? ­- inconsistent. A point was reached towards the end of last year, where this lady could clearly do no wrong. Every recording was awarded superlatives. This is now looking very curious, because some of the recordings that were hijacked were not so highly praised when they first came out. The myth had swept objectivity before it.

Now, you may say this has nothing to do with writing. In one sense, that is true. Yet it is undeniable that critics are important to writers. They make careers, they create stars and they live in the reflected glow of those very stars. But in the wake of this debacle for music critics, I am inclined to be a little bit suspicious of book critics as well. They too give opinions, and offer verdicts, and we listen and respect their judgements. Well, I for one, am now minded to take some of their pontifications a little more cautiously. And I do wonder how many musicians, having been mauled by those very critics who lauded Joyce, are now smiling quietly and saying to themselves: 'well they aren’t so all-wise after all'.

I’m inclined to agree.