Married in 1956 to concert pianist Joyce Hatto, he was jailed for a year in 1966 for "blatant and impertinent frauds". He attained further notoriety in 2007 when he confessed that a large number of piano CDs that he had sold on his Concert Artist/Fidelio Recordings label were not in fact performed by his wife but were copies, in some cases digitally manipulated, of commercially available recordings by other pianists.
Barrington-Coupe was born in Llanelli. In the early 1950s, he worked in London as a classical musicians' agent. A directory from 1953–1954 showed him with two exclusive artists on his books. A 1955 article in Billboard magazine refers to Barrington-Coupe, as President of Concert Artists, licensing Mozart recordings by the "London Mozart Ensemble".
Following the Saga collapse in late 1960, he created the Lyrique record label with Marcel Rodd, who had a record-pressing factory, and began to release records by artists under different pseudonyms, a not uncommon practice of the era. "The repertoire was from the variety of master tapes now in Rodd's tape library," wrote Ted Perry, one of Barrington-Coupe's former colleagues in an unpublished autobiography. "It was also, possibly, from some of Coupe's own tapes since he always seemed to have a lot of recorded material of unknown, not to say dubious, provenance."
Recordings of classical works issued on his Delta label were believed to have been copied from radio broadcasts from behind the Iron Curtain, mixed to disguise the sources. Private Eye has claimed that on one recording of Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, he made the mistake of inserting a number of bars backwards. A recording issued featuring the Danzig Philharmonic was in stereo, when it was known that that orchestra had ceased to exist a decade or more before stereo recording was common. He also made up artists' names: "Wilhelm Havagesse" was the falsely-named conductor of the "Zurich Municipal Orchestra" in a recording of Scheherazade released on Barrington-Coupe's Fidelio label in 1962 (ATL 4006). Charles Haynes, who worked with Barrington-Coupe at Delta, recounted that "quite often they used to 'monkey around', hence conductors Havagesse and Homer Lott and the soprano Herda Wobbel", lamenting that the practice stopped when "the Trades Descriptions Act threatened the continuing existence of these fine artists: 'End of the Road for Musician Havagesse' proclaimed the Daily Telegraph's headline."
Barrington-Coupe set up a further label, on 25 February 1960, with Major Wilfred Alonzo Banks's financial backing: Triumph Records. This time his collaborator was Joe Meek, a record producer who became best known for "Telstar", the 1962 hit by the Tornados. The two men later fell out and Meek left the company, which subsequently went into liquidation. Meek was followed by David Gooch, who produced a number of extended-play and long-playing records on a new label, Dial Records. This association was terminated when Barrington-Coupe had obvious financial difficulties. Desperate to make ends meet, he began importing radios from Hong Kong, which he sold in London markets and by mail order, but became the subject of legal action when he failed to pay purchase tax.
On 17 May 1966, after what was then the longest-running and most expensive trial at the Old Bailey, costing the British taxpayer £150,000, Barrington-Coupe and four other defendants were found guilty of failing to pay £84,000 in purchase tax (over £1 million in 2007 currency). Barrington-Coupe was fined £3,600 and jailed for 12 months. His company, W.H. Barrington-Coupe Ltd, was fined £4,000 and finally wound up in 1971. Summing up, Judge Alan King-Hamilton said: "These were blatant and impertinent frauds, carried out in my opinion rather clumsily. But such was your conceit that you thought yourself smart enough to get away with it."
After he was released from prison, Barrington-Coupe was reunited with Hatto. While she began to earn a modest reputation for her recitals of Liszt and Chopin, Barrington-Coupe maintained a lower profile. In the 1970s, the couple disappeared from the public eye, becoming virtual recluses in their detached modern home in Royston, Hertfordshire.
The great piano swindle
It was not until 2002 that they were heard of again. During the previous 13 years they had apparently recorded another 103 CDs of Hatto's playing, which Barrington-Coupe began issuing on his Concert Artist label. In 2007, these CDs were found to be fraudulent copies of recordings of other artists issued by other labels. Barrington-Coupe initially denied any wrongdoing but subsequently admitted the fraud in a letter to Robert von Bahr, the head of the Swedish BIS record label that had originally issued some of the recordings plagiarised by Concert Artist.
Bahr immediately shared the contents of the letter with Gramophone magazine, telling journalist Jessica Duchen afterwards that he "had given a lot of thought" to suing Barrington-Coupe for damages, but was inclined not to do so, on the assumption that the hoax recordings were "a desperate attempt to build a shrine to a dying wife".
Barrington-Coupe died in Royston, England on 19 October 2014.
- 'Revenge of the fraudster pianist', Daily Mail 24 February 2007
- Hatto's birth, marriage and death certificates
- Singer, Mark (17 September 2007). "Fantasia for Piano". The New Yorker. New York City. Retrieved 16 May 2016.
- Fifield, Christopher (2005). Ibbs and Tillett: The Rise and Fall of a Musical Empire. Ashgate Publishing Ltd. p. 301. ISBN 1-84014-290-1.
- "Pre-Recorded IPR Hi-Fi Tape at LP Prices". Billboard. 26 February 1955. p. 28.
- Piano ‘genius’ is branded a fake (reader comment)
- 'Music and Musicians', Private Eye No. 1180, 16–29 March 2007
- http://www.scena.org/columns/lebrecht/070221-NL-hatto.html Norman Lebrecht. How to make a classical fake. 21 February 2007
- Simon Townley, 'Cut-Price Classics' BBC Radio 4, 11 Dec 2004. "Who was Wilhelm Havagesse (go on, have a guess!)? Simon Townley goes in search of the most elusive orchestral conductor of all time."
- It should be said that other 'budget' record labels from the 1950s to the present day also frequently use made-up names for their artistes where the master tapes are made by moonlighting musicians, or all trace of origin has been lost.
- Charles Haynes, Pearls Before. Self-published Tunbridge Wells 1991; see also Marc Shepherd, 'Gilbert & Sullivan for Orchestra, Eric Johnson, conductor a/k/a The Best Loved Melodies of Gilbert and Sullivan, Malcolm Hughes, conductor' Nov. 2001.
- The JOE MEEK Page | Triumph Records, Part 1
- Foskett, Ewan (1 March 2012). "Exclusive: Husband of pianist in recording scandal speaks to The Crow". The Royston Crow. Retrieved 16 May 2016.
- Duchen, Jessica. "Joyce Hatto: Notes on a scandal" (PDF). The Independent, 26 February 2007. Retrieved 2012-06-10.
- "William Barrington-Coupe ('Barry')". The Royston Crow. 30 October 2014. Retrieved 16 May 2016.