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.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The Kindness of Strangers, part 9

Leffe bottle on portable

H.M.V. model 101 portable, Leffe brune

This was my paternal grandfather’s gramophone. Prompted by kind comments left at the Cave-mouth, I ventured out with my box brownie to snap it and one of my favourite drinks. Not my Grampy’s, though – I think he preferred India pale ale, after golf, down at The Cricketers, which is all a bit too English for me.

La Grumpy is the real beer drinker round these parts – preferably with pop-corn in front of Columbo (RIP). We love Leffe, both blonde and brune (hmm – there’s a motto in there somewhere). Unlike 2ndviolinist, we have never tried Radieuse (sorry to hear about the supply problems in Austin TX) or indeed any of the other brews. Thanks for the tip.

And we have never tried Westmalle, Corsendonck or Affligem – but with Satyr’s recommendation, we must! Perhaps with some Ockeghem or Ghizeghem. I have drunk Chimay but I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember much about it. It’s a bit pricey round here – at least three rabbit-skins a bottle. Another beer which I love and which we used to be able to buy, until the man with the clipboard faxed headquarters, is Jenlain, from brasserie Duyck. It’s also been a while since I’ve seen Fischer Tradition, from Alsace, a curiously nutty delight.

Dear Doug, since you’ve asked so kindly, I can’t refuse your request. I can’t actually play 78s myself, either, at the moment. I don’t have thorn needles for this thing, although I know a man who does; and it seizes up in colder temperatures.

The dubs from 78s on this blog are kindly made for me by collectors such as Paul Steinson, Raymond Glaspole and Jolyon. I have a modern variable-speed turntable with 78 rpm but not the right styli or pre-amp. I am lusting after the KAB EQS MK12 - should I get it (when I can afford it)? But I must finish this PhD first!

Dear Benoît, I hope to have another nice upload for you very soon. Thank you for your own contributions, which far surpass mine.

Leffe bottle in fairyland

P.S.: Blogger still won’t let me leave comments on my own blog, so thank you for putting me right about the model.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Farmer Grumpy says, ‘Get orff moy paast!’

Archiv AP 13013 front

Mozart Sonata in A K.311
Fritz Neumeyer
(fortepiano by Johann Gottlieb Fichtl, late 18th C)
Archiv AP 13013 (rec. 30 October 1952)

Apologies for my long, rude silence and a big thank you to everyone who has read this blog and left kind comments. Blogger has been broken for some time and I am tired of dealing with the pointless ‘improvements’ to technology which I had been happily using for months without problems. I hope to respond soon. The good news is, I have been writing my PhD! Slowly, but surely…

Still, I am known to slink naughtily off for some retail therapy. Yesterday, my bad friend Jolyon and I went to visit a kind man who sold us some interesting 78s and LPs from his gargantuan collection – like me, he can’t bear to see anything thrown away.

Among them were some LPs formerly in the library of a British university music department, which was notoriously closed down a few years ago. I was very glad to find this one, which I’m fairly sure is one of the earliest complete recordings of a Classical keyboard sonata on a fortepiano. Ralph Kirkpatrick was making records on one around this time, although I believe that was a modern instrument by John Challis. If you know of earlier or other contemporary recordings, I’d be very interested to learn of them.

I knew of this disc but had never seen nor heard it. Nor would you, if it was up to the record industry’s ‘To-infinity-and-beyond!’ copyright-extension lobby and its superannuated self-appointed terrors of the newsgroups, to the early music thought-police or to keyboard-lion worshippers and Martha Argerich scrapbook compilers. (NB I specifically exclude DG from this list of villains; I very much doubt they could sell this disc at a profit, precisely because of all the other people who would immediately tell us it’s worthless.)

Another reason is that this LP was apparently roundly condemned when first issued in Britain – unfortunately, the January 1955 issue of Gramophone is one of several missing entirely from the magazine’s archive, although the scathing review was cited (approvingly) when a 12-inch LP reissue was covered in November 1963.

No, it’s not the greatest performance ever recorded. But who is to tell us which is? Who is to dictate to us that we should never hear it again? That we should not try to appreciate the pioneering efforts of artists like Neumeyer? Are all today’s fortepianists really that much better? I think Neumeyer is rather sensitive and poetic in the first two movements. And good on him for going for broke in the finale – Turkish music was meant to be a bit kitsch, I suspect. Also, recordings of instruments by this Viennese maker are none too common.

Get the three fully tagged, mono FLAC files in a .rar file here.

Yes, like Farmer Palmer, when I see someone braying ‘deservedly forgotten’ and worriting moy sheep, I reach for my 12-bore…