Classical music: How simple tinkering with tempo took in the top critics

THREE years ago today, the English pianist Joyce Hatto died from cancer at the age of 77.

Having retired in 1976 after an unremarkable performing career, she had suddenly and quite inexplicably re-emerged in 2002 as a global recording sensation, aided by her husband and record producer, William Barrington-Coupe, and critically acclaimed by all, including the influential and trustworthy Gramophone magazine.

In the space of four years, and on Barrington-Coupe's own Concert Artists label, she had recorded the cream of the piano repertoire from Bach to Messiaen, including the complete piano works of Chopin, Brahms, Ravel, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Beethoven, Haydn, Mozart and Prokofiev. More than 100 recordings appeared, and all the while Hatto was battling ovarian cancer.

The story even went so far as to reveal that she had completed her final recording of Beethoven's Farewell Sonata seated on a wheelchair. Slighted in her younger years by the critics – the Times said of a 1953 performance that Hatto "grappled doggedly with too hasty tempi in Mozart's D Minor Piano Concerto" – Hatto had suddenly resurfaced to become the very stuff of classical music legend.

A glowing obituary in the Boston Globe by its highly respected critic, Richard Dyer, eulogised her late flowering as "the largest recording legacy left by any pianist, with the possible exception of Sviatoslav Richter.

"More important than the size of Miss Hatto's discography is its quality," Dyer continued. "Her playing throughout is on a superb technical level that is matched by profound expressivity and a deep humanity."

At the time such lavish praise seemed perfectly reasonable, given that Hatto's recordings were beginning to outsell even those of Alfred Brendel or Vladimir Ashkenazy. But one of music's greatest shams was about to be spectacularly uncovered by a young American financier, Brian Ventura. He had transferred one of Hatto's discs to his iPod before setting off that morning to his office on Wall Street. En route, he realised the name popping up on his screen was that of the Hungarian virtuoso Laszlo Simon, not Hatto. He immediately contacted Gramophone.

Suddenly, the music critics who had been drooling over the septuagenarian's miraculous return from the cold ran for cover. Further forensic investigation revealed Hatto's recordings to be ingeniously disguised fakes. Barrington-Coupe had used his technical expertise to plunder recordings by such unsuspecting virtuoso pianists as Paul Kim and Marc-Andr Hamelin, and reissue them under his wife's name.

He had simply slowed down some passages, speeded up others, occasionally altered the balance between the treble and bass, and even swapped channels to reverse the stereo effect.

When it came to concertos, he invented the non-existent conductor Ren Kohler (apparently the name of a popular German lavatory manufacturer), and equally mythical National Philharmonic-Symphony and Warsaw Philharmonic orchestras, when in fact the performances were doctored versions conducted by the likes of Andr Previn and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The fact that he had openly acknowledged recording many of the discs in the couple's garden hut seemed to have passed the critics by.

The whole story is told in Channel 4's First Cut series this Friday in The Great Piano Scam, a documentary by the young film-maker Susannah Price, which includes revealing interviews with some of the duped critics. More importantly, her film includes an interview with Barrington-Coupe himself, speaking publicly for the first time about his role in the plot.

Will he come clean? To date, Barrington-Coupe has remained obstinately vague about his involvement and that of his late wife. Was she party to the plot? They were, without a doubt, a questionable pair. Hatto once claimed to be the daughter of an antiques dealer when, in truth, her father owned a sweet shop. Barrington-Coupe spent a year in prison for tax irregularities in 1966.

While the line spun by Barrington-Coupe about his wife's sudden withdrawal from concert life in 1976 – marked by a dramatic mid-concert collapse over the keys during a Wigmore Hall recital – was that she had contracted cancer (untrue at the time, but ironically what eventually killed her), the general feeling was that she had taken umbrage at worsening reviews and a belief that she was being vilified by what she called the "Royal Academy attitude" of the British musical establishment. She had an undoubted chip on her shoulder.

Was the ultimate musical con, then, a case of Hatto and her husband sticking two fingers up at the critics, or a desperate attempt to become part of the establishment they apparently despised?

If Channel 4 can answer that, then we might finally understand what led an apparently quiet and unassuming 70-year-old in twinset and pearls to take the musical world for mugs.

&#149 The Great Piano Scam is on Channel 4, on Friday at 7:35pm