I have learned pitifully few life lessons, but I realized long ago that honesty really is the best policy; not just because it is morally right, but because it makes life so much simpler.
Imagine being someone like Benjamin Abalos, having to defend a life so entombed in lies, deceptions, and trickeries. What a nightmare. I wonder whether the chairman (as he was so courteously called during last week’s senate investigation) has any idea what really happened in his life, or whether his recall of events has been supplanted by “the story”, the implausible cleaned-up tale he has to trot out to inquisitive senators and journalists.
The problem with lying is that its perpetrators think of it as an event, whereas it is really a process. Lies are sociable—tell one half-truth and somehow you end up having to back it up with second and a third and pretty soon you are the disinherited offspring of Hungarian nobility on the run from a barroom murder down in Mexico.
Most liars and fantasists get found out in the end, but some give the gullible public a run for their money. Take Joyce Hatto, a minor British classical pianist, and her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, known as Barry. He was the owner of a small classical music label and a minor technical whiz who, like most uxorious husbands, wanted to give his wife what she craved. The story of how Barry managed to turn obscure pianist Joyce Hatto into one of the internet-driven sensations of the classical music world was beautifully laid out in a recent New Yorker piece.
Joyce and Barry were getting on in years (one of the key features of Joyce’s legend was her age—she was a septuagenarian when most of the recordings credited to her were supposed to have been made) and somewhat embittered by the musical establishment’s lack of recognition of Joyce’s talent. It’s not clear exactly when Barry realized he could take recordings of other obscure pianists and dress them up as Joyce’s work but it seems the deception began as “patching”, i.e., inserting passages from other recordings to cover up the deficiencies in Joyce’s renditions. From that little lie grew the Hatto industry, nearly all of which had no Hatto input at all.
Joyce and Barry skillfully promoted the recordings through an internet discussion group devoted to piano music, and before long Joyce Hatto became recognized for the outstanding pianist she and her husband always felt she was. The following internet review of a Hatto rendition of a Rachmaninoff piece was fairly typical:
… just magical, light as a feather, fluid, colourful, textures limpid as a mountain spring, tonally luscious, rhythmically alive and bright. A dream.
An irresistible review, and Barry and Joyce did not resist. In the last 10 years of Joyce’s life they churned out recording after recording, not so much plagiarized as simply stolen, and lapped up by credulous critics. After Joyce’s death in June 2006 the whole hoax, in the words of the New Yorker article, simply exploded. It’s a great yarn, I recommend the article, lengthy though it is. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotations from reviews of the same work by the same reviewer 15 years apart.
In 1992, in Gramophone, the critic Bryce Morrison found that Yefim Bronfman’s Rachmaninoff Third Concerto lacked “the sort of angst or urgency that has endeared Rachmaninov to millions” and that “Bronfman sounds oddly unmoved by Rachmaninov ’s intensely slavonic idiom. In the sunset coda of the Adagio his playing is devoid of glamour and in the finale’s fugue he lacks crispness and definition.” Fifteen years later, he wrote of Hatto’s release of the same recording: “stunning . . . truly great . . . among the finest on record . . . with a special sense of its Slavic melancholy.”
That’s a beauty.