Saturday, 10 September 2011

Screwier than Archimedes

Lyrichord LL 19 cover

Anon. and Sermisy arr. Attaingnant and Gervaise
Chambonnières, Daquin, Grigny,
Dandrieu, Rameau, Balbastre
Claude Jean Chiasson
(harpsichord by Chiasson, after classical models)
Lyrichord LL 19 (recorded 1951?, New York?)

‘Displacement!’ - just to remember the word, I had to get out of the Cave and go to the supermarket, that’s how addle-pated I am these days. I should have been working on the thesis – instead, I spent much of today cleaning up this beautifully preserved 1951 LP and trying to identify the contents.

I haven’t succeeded in all cases. Except for ‘Tant que vivray’, which any fule kno is by Sermisy, I didn’t try to pin down the pieces arranged by Attaingnant and Gervaise, as they published so many. Though I’m not sure which of Attaingnant’s three versions of Sermisy’s chanson this is. Nor could I place Daquin’s La Mélodieuse, as I didn’t find a listing of his many pièces de clavecin. If you can help, that would be grand. The first Gervaise piece should be easy, it’s so familiar. Everything else I managed to nail. Quite proud of finding the Dialogue by Grigny, one of two organ pieces here – the other is Balbastre’s noël ‘Joseph est bien marié’.

This is not the sort of harpsichord recital you could buy nowadays – far too eclectic and wide-ranging. Here’s what Chiasson himself wrote on the sleeve:

‘The reign of the harpsichord coincides with the period of France as a great nation, and of Paris as the artistic center of Europe [so it went south after 1791! Attaboy!]. With the advent of François I to the throne in 1515, the Renaissance of the arts in France was in full swing. Paris in the Sixteenth Century became the world center of music printing and publishing, ranking well above Lyons, Amsterdam and Nuremberg. The main publishers of music were Ballard, Le Roy and Atteignant, who between the years 1530 and 1549 produced many beautifully designed volumes of chansons, madrigals, instrumental pieces and keyboard works.

‘From the point of view of the performing artist, great research is necessary in the study of the old "Danseries" before determining the correct notes to be played, not to mention the problems of phrasing, tempo, and the general spirit of these little masterpieces. Sharps and flats are frequently missing, and enormous care must go into deciding where they should be added. The cold matter of the mere printed notes must be warmed, infused with breath, life and color, by the individual interpreter. It is precisely this open, free quality which makes this music such a joy to prepare.

‘It would be impossible in a single program to give a comprehensive idea of the rich mine of harpsichord music bequeathed to us by the great composers of three centuries. The program-builder is confronted with such a bewildering array of masterpieces, such a diversity of styles, that to select a general group to fit into the time limits of an LP recording is a difficult matter indeed. The present program was designed to cover the ground in as balanced a way as possible.’

Chiasson did a fine job, recording several pieces which are still not often heard today. One thing I specially like is that he segues many of the pieces, even those by different composers, as if playing this programme through in one sweep (maybe he did?), so that I had to start some tracks right up against the music and leave other items yoked together.

I also like his gutsy gusto in the Renaissance danseries, though maybe ‘Tant que vivray’ lacks a little lyricism. He’s pensive in the lovely Chaconne by Chambonnières, grand in Rameau’s unmeasured Prélude in a minor and tender in some of the more delicate, quintessentially French rondeaux (again, Chambonnières’ is a winner). Occasionally he’s a little rhythmically routine and four-square, a common trait in the age of the ‘sewing-machine’ style; and trills can be a tad shapeless. But there are breath, life and color here aplenty.

Here’s what the sleeve said about Chiasson: ‘Pianist, organist, harpsichordist and scholar, Claude Jean Chiasson has devoted many years to the interpretation of early keyboard music, especially of France. In addition to his multiple musical activities, which include extensive concert tours, Mr. Chiasson has for the past twenty years been active in the reconstruction of the harpsichord, refining and modifying his designs after the great school of the Ruckers, Couchet and Taskin. The instrument used for this recording represents the finest example to come from his workshop. At one time director of the Sunday Concerts for the Fine Arts Museum in Boston, Mr. Chiasson now makes his home in New York City and divides his time between concert tours and the building of harpsichords.’

Yes, the 1950s weren’t all Cage and Kerouac.

The recording is a little bright and brash. I’ve done nothing beyond the usual ClickRepair (nowadays, I also do basic low-frequency denoising) and some detailed retouching.

Thirteen mono, fully-tagged FLACs in a .rar file here.

It could have been worse – I could have spent the time moving LPs from one stalagmite to another. Or washing pants.


  1. Grumpy, this post stimulates and edifies me! I am so impressed with your attentiveness to items like this one, overflowing with wisdom and individuality.

    Speaking of displacement, you've got to come serve these guys with Copyright Infringement papers! (I'm sure you'd charge much less):

  2. Goodness me! $12 a shot is a lot, even for the coveted 'Grumpy' name... Mind you, I have a fondness for Ethiopian coffee: a variety I like is Yirgacheffe - nearly as good as La Esmeralda (from Panama).

    Oddly enough, there is another infringer in the very same line of business here:

    But he's a good egg, so I'm not complaining (and, to be honest, I think he got in first!).

    Oh, and thanks for the kind comment! Sorry not to have reciprocated recently - struggling with the darn thesis and other things... G

  3. I can't get Grumpy the Mule to load - you must have inundated that site with hits... the proverbial piece of straw, alas.

    And if you think $12 (which must equal about a pound at this point?) is a lot of money, you must see this:

  4. Hi Nick, great post but could you please give us a numerical track listing? The files just sort alphabetically which I am sure is not the correct playing order on the LP. Thanks, TWS

  5. Dear TWS, Thanks for the kind comment! I addressed the playing order problem over at Squirrel's Nest but I'll recap. All my files are tagged with track numbers which follow the original order of items on the source disc. Any software player should play them in that order - but not if my tags are being removed or overwritten. Are you converting my FLAC files to another format? Which player do you use and how do you load files into it? For instance, when I drag a clutch of files into Foobar, it idiotically seems to order them randomly - but then I right-click on the selection and instruct it to 'Sort by Track Number'. I'll be honest with you - providing a numerical track list is harder work than it seems and I try to keep the amount of typing and editing I have to do to a minimum... Best wishes, G

  6. Dear Nick, Thanks for the explanation. I had converted the files to WAVs, and that is presumably how I lost your tags. Per your suggestion, I dragged the FLACs into Foobar, sorted by track number, and that answered my question. Grateful as always for the music and informed commentary. TWS

  7. UPDATE October 2017: Many thanks to reader Arrieu, who has pointed out that Daquin's La Mélodieuse can now be found on IMSLP, where it's listed as the first number in the fourth suite of Daquin's 1er livre de pièces de clavecin – G.