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.