Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien

Lyrichord LL 12 front

François Couperin Pièces de clavecin
Claude Jean Chiasson
(harpsichord by Robert Conant, 1950)
Lyrichord LL 12 (recorded c.1950-51)

Having been driven way beyond grumpiness by a recent tantrum of mean-minded musical myopia on RMCR, I’ve been wondering why it is that I enjoy this LP (which I found in a charity shop in Clapham recently) and want to wave it about outside the Cave, even though I know Chiasson is not the ‘best’ harpsichordist on record.

And then I remembered the dictum which is today’s title and realised that it crystallises my feelings in this post. (I didn’t know it was Voltaire’s.) I’m not a philosopher of ethics or aesthetics, though I care deeply about both and frequently ponder them in a half-arsed way. I’m not a historian – more an anorak – though how we got here has always fascinated me. But I’ll try to explain.

Voltaire’s words, as so often, have many meanings. Two seem relevant here. First, by setting our sights only on the best, we often miss the good. There are good moments on this LP, for me L’Arlequine and the Passacaille especially. Would my life be poorer if I had never heard this? Yes, dammit, a little bit. And we shouldn’t throw away little good bits unless we’re happy to be wasteful.

(I also preach a sort of converse of Voltaire’s far deeper idea: only by experiencing the good and even the not-so-good do we learn to appreciate the best. At school and university, they made us read only Homer and Virgil, a pointlessly narrow syllabus which left me preferring defixiones (Roman curses) and late, ‘decadent’ poets like Ausonius: ‘Amnis ibat inter arva valle fusus frigida…’ – grand! Anyway, of the ‘greats’, my favourite was Ovid, the Mozart of Classical verse.)

Second, I think there’s a more literal meaning to Voltaire’s mot: the best can hound the good out of existence. Adulation of Argerich and reverence for Rachmaninoff can turn into laziness or unwillingness to give an unknown artist a hearing. One unexpectedly lovely phrase on a record or in a broadcast – I’m happy to have listened. It doesn’t have to be a transcendent, red-label, monogrammed experience every time.

Right, that was the aesthetical and ethical bit; now for the historical bit. I believe the drive for perfection in recorded performances is a complicated phenomenon, with many causes and feedbacky loops. I’ve now heard enough old records and read enough about how they were made to know that only the biggest companies and the biggest artists bothered about perfection – or could afford to.

This remained true well into the period when this LP was made. Would a small independent label like Lyrichord spend days getting Chiasson to get this recital perfect? Probably not. Could Chiasson afford to take days off from his life as a musician? I don’t know how successful he was but I doubt it. Surely, like thousands of musicians on 78s and early LPs, he went into the  studios and did what he could on the day. He’s a bit deliberate in places but he also shows deep absorption and love for the music. Is that reason to throw him away?

Another reason to want to hear Chiasson is that he recorded with Hugues Cuenod. There are interesting dribs and drabs about him on the net, such as this account of ‘The Harpsichord in America 1884–1946’. Has anyone written a decent history of the harpsichord revival?

Get the 5, fully tagged mono FLACs in a .rar file here.

And then head over to RMCR and and stick up for humane values and grown-up good manners.

This one’s a thank you to you, Benoît, for your exemplary uploads and kind support.


  1. I, too, am fond of the not-quite-so's and the almost-ran, for the reasons you describe. I mean, c'mon, is the librarian's and archivist's job not to remain somewhat impartial and celebrate the differences, rather than the redundancies, of the overrecorded repertoire? I admit I sometimes falter in that regard where it comes to certain chunks of the musical canon (I once placed a moratorium on buying anything by Brahms, and I "keep kosher" there where the symphonies are concerned, having just so damn many versions of them all -- though I make exceptions for the repertoire I don't know as well, such as the songs, choral works, and piano music.)

    The harpsichord used to be a dreadful instrument to my ears, and I put it in the same category of instruments as the Saxophone -- the annoyophones. I've changed my tune on the Hpschrd but Saxes must still not cross my threshhold.

    I shall give this a listen in preparation for Independence Day trickery.

  2. Ah but there's so much fantastic underexposed Brahms to collect - piano music, chamber music, songs... I gather an LP of Brahms's Cello Sonatas played by Maurice Maréchal & Jeanne-Marie Darré on Pathé sold for $3,656! Luckily, there are two Japanese CD transfers...

  3. This really puts a smile on my face and makes the whole morning magical - thank you. My first visit here.

  4. Thank you, that's very kind! Do come again, I have more of the same coming (I hope). Best wishes, G

  5. Voltaire is a good friend, and Chiasson is better than a mere go-between, the sound is a jeweller's shop window, static , self contemplating, reflections of lights, mechanic..clock machinery , automated toys..
    as a 70yrs old child I can stare hours in this dream
    Couperin is an other of my cherished friends
    a dream of a fresh n young France
    helps forget strange days that may happen

    thank you !

  6. Very interesting. Sorry, the link is dead!

  7. Dear Coratogia, Thank you so much for your comment - I'm sorry I missed it, Google Reader should have notified me but didn't (not the first time). Best wishes, Nick

  8. Dear Nibelung, Yes, I'm afraid you're right: Mediafire has marked it as a 'copyright' file which cannot be shared - incorrectly, I may add, with regard to my jurisidction, though I'm not quite clear about the US. I can't be bothered to fight these mean-minded morons and I'm considering where to host my existing and future transfers (which I hope will be many and varied). Apologies, Nick

  9. Alas, my system seems to have forgotten how to get me onto RMCR — irksome, considering I paid for my newsgroup access.

    If you find yourself over there, tell them I miss them.

    1. Dear Kip, I occasionally visit RMCR but I no longer post there, since even the most innocent and well-meaning posts are usually met by certain individuals with astonishingly aggressive rudeness. My apologies, Nick