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Joyce Hatto

Pianist hailed as a national treasure

Joyce Hilda Hatto, pianist and teacher: born London 5 September 1928; married 1956 William Barrington-Coupe; died Royston, Hertfordshire 29 June 2006.

The pianist Joyce Hatto was a child of the Blitz, a contributor to a post-war musical landscape peopled by Myra Hess, Solomon and Clifford Curzon, as well as her friends Kathleen Ferrier and Eileen Joyce. Hers was an inspirational presence, quiet and unforced. She had been out of the public eye for 30 years, after being diagnosed with cancer in 1970, but her legacy is a large and remarkable body of late recordings, which ensures her a place in the collective consciousness.

Brought up in north-west London, Hatto studied during the Second World War with the pianist and conductor Serge Krish. Krish developed a passion for Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, and introduced her to London's émigré Russian circle: "I became friendly with Benno Moiseiwitsch and I was made very welcome in that family and the whole group of quite exceptional musicians."

Subsequently she went to Ilona Kabos and Zbigniew Drzewiecki (in Warsaw); took advice from Alfred Cortot, Clara Haskil and Sviatoslav Richter; and sought insight from Nadia Boulanger, Paul Hindemith and Mátyás Seiber. Cortot left a particular impression. "To him being a musician meant making music, communicating music, and bringing the composer and his music to life."

During the 1950s Hatto championed various British composers, including Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Constant Lambert and Alan Rawsthorne. She also gained a reputation as a Liszt and Chopin player - her marathons including the first public account of the complete Beethoven-Liszt symphony. Evaluating her work at the time, the Chopin scholar Arthur Hedley observed:

Joyce Hatto is unusual . . . among English pianists, in understanding the darker side of the composer. She does not strive for pretty effects and her projection of Chopin as a "big" composer sets her aside from most of her contemporaries. It is a considerable achievement of will that she never allows her own forceful personality to intrude on that of the composer.

Up to 1979, when illness (and an ungallant critic) forced her retirement from the public stage, Hatto devoted herself to recitals at the Wigmore Hall and South Bank Centre, international touring, and private teaching. Her trips abroad, of which she had fond memories, took her especially to the Iron Curtain countries and Scandinavia - critics admiring not only her facility, musicality and large-scale thinking but also her "ability to coax so many different sounds from her instrument".

Diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1970, she spent the final third of her life oscillating between recovery, relapse and recording. The CDs she released on the Concert Artist label (over a hundred since 1989) bear witness to superhuman energy and diversity of repertory: Bach's "48"; the complete sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Prokofiev; cycles of solo Chopin, Schumann, Brahms and Rachmaninov; the Chopin-Godowsky Studies; Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis; the concertos of Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Rachmaninov; some wonderful Scarlatti; and Bax's Symphonic Variations with Vernon Handley and the Guildford Philharmonic.

All were conveyed with integrity, fine taste, and high-definition polish. Exceptional tonal quality, shaping a Classical line, elegant phrase endings, knowing how to place and time a Romantic climax were the hallmarks of Hatto's pianism, along with some of the most beautiful trills and ornaments on record.

The inexplicability, the tragedy of Hatto's career was why so many for so long failed to credit her achievement. In her youth she may have worked with Sabata, Beecham, Kletzki, Martinon and others. And Neville Cardus may have called her "a British pianist to challenge the German supremacy in Beethoven and Brahms", but she was never to become a BBC "star". No recording moguls took her up; the Establishment looked away; the London orchestras cold-shouldered her, and the media remained indifferent or cynical. Vendettas were waged. She said it didn't matter, that the music business was "a jungle" anyway - yet the hurt ran deep.

Not until the renaissance of her very last years were things to change for the better - for which she had to thank internet exposure, a generation of open-minded pianophiles, and a landmark appraisal from Frank Siebert in the German magazine Fono Forum ("she makes music without imposed superlatives"). Her contemporary the American pianist Ivan Davis, in his day student and friend of Vladimir Horowitz, sums her up as the British "national treasure" of her era:

I know of no pianist in the world who is her superior musically or technically. She gives one an audio blueprint of the score - never changing the composer's instructions but setting them forth though her personal vision, poetically and passionately. I think she will have extraordinary posthumous acclaim.

In old age a slight, drawn figure of girlish voice and impeccable courtesies - spiritually the great-granddaughter of Liszt, pianistically the granddaughter of Busoni and Paderewski, poetically the niece of Rachmaninov and Mark Hambourg - Joyce Hatto was an artist of strong views and self-belief: Urgeist before Urtext, spirit before letter, composer before editor or performer. Never mind about the limelight, she used to say, get the message across, "draw" people in, "play what the composer has taken so much trouble to write down".

Ates Orga