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Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, September 2010

Since they deserve to be named, the Mirage Quintet is: Robert Aitken, flute; Erica Goodman, harp; Jacques Israelivitch, violin; Teng Li, viola, and Winona Zelenka, cello. All of these players have the Toronto Symphony as their common denominator at some point in time. This superb disc explores the music of the early 20th-century French school, a cast of remarkably unified yet simultaneously divergent composers who all felt the influences of Debussy and Ravel, though I think it a mistake to overdue that consideration.

While the two aforementioned giants did of course exercise a profound influence, each of the composers listed are in no way carbon-copy “impressionist” clones by any stretch of the imagination. The closest to that category in my listening is Tournier, whose Suite is quite Ravel-like in substance and linear melody, reminding me of hisString Quartet. Florent Schmitt will be known to most people, studying under Faure and Debussy, and his Suite also shows some connections to Debussy’s aesthetic, but only just—he was still his own man and at least in this work was more classically concerned than his mentor.

Gabriel Pierne is familiar to many who play wind instruments, a typically Gallic composer with a great concern for clarity, wit, and stylistic congruity. These Variations are a perfect example of his art, succinct, clear as a bell, and rather rambunctious. Speaking of wit, no French composer had more of it than Jean Francaix, perhaps the quintessentially urbane classicist with a penchant for the madcap. Though he has been criticized, not without some justification, of “sameness” in his music, there are many pieces that completely avoid this appellation and demonstrate a profound sense of irony, drollness, sentimentality, and wistfulness, and this Quintet is one of them. Albert Roussel is the neoclassical composer par excellence, and this Serenade shows him in fine fashion, orderly and always looking back with a language that is distinctly modern—at least it was then.

The Mirage Quintet plays just beautifully, rich, warm tone, and with a quietly finessed sense of ensemble unanimity. The rather cavernous acoustics of St Anne’s Anglican Church in Toronto are captured brilliantly on this recording, truly a marvel of elegance and a testament to Engineer Norbert Craft’s expertise. Highest recommendation then, an album that is guaranteed to bring much pleasure.



Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, March 2010

…warmly recorded, not too cloudily either, it ends a truly lovely disc.



Carla Rees
MusicWeb International, February 2010

Marcel Tournier’s Suite is a beautiful work, with stylistic nuances akin to Ravel, Debussy and Honegger. The opening movement is calm, with its focus on a simple melody line and colouristic effects from the combination of instruments, particularly flute, harp and violin. The second movement is a short but poised dance, while the third movement is built around a sumptuous cello solo. The final movement, Fête, is animated, with a sense of forward drive. Tournier creates space for each of the instruments to sound clearly within his textures. There is a sense of equality within the ensemble, each instrument providing its own colour where required.

Florent Schmitt’s Suite en rocaille is joyful and elegant, light-hearted and energetic, with four short movements. Schmitt was a composer, pianist and critic, and well received within the French musical scene. This is a highly enjoyable quintet, which has its roots in impressionism but has a relatively traditional language.

The opening moments of Pierné’s Variations libres et finale are truly breathtaking, with Robert Aitken’s flute in its low register producing a rich tone. Pierné’s music had a reputation for elegance, and this is immediately apparent in this work. His textures are translucent, while the diversity of sounds from within the quintet is carefully handled. The charming fast section towards the end is light and ebullient, with a poised sense of charm.

Francaix’s Quintette begins with a simple, well formed and calm Andante tranquillo. Francaix’s music is based on traditional forms, using a witty language to give a modern feel. The Scherzo is a fine example of his wit, and is a challenging movement full of character and sparkle. The remaining two movements also take on distinctive moods and are played with energetic vigour.

The disc ends with the Sérénade by Roussel. A neo-classical work, the piece has a delightful sonata-form opening movement with both spirit and a sense of refinement. The flute performs a fantasia-style solo melody in the Andante, over still exotic string harmonies, giving the music a sense of almost improvised freedom with gentle pizzicato cello punctuating the flow. This is an atmospheric piece that is performed here with sensitivity. The fiery final Presto is light, agile and highly convincing.

Although this disc is labelled French Flute Chamber Music, and Robert Aitken’s flute playing is undoubtedly excellent, the other instruments take on an equal role throughout. They deserve their share of the credit for this recording. The ensemble plays with a sense of unity and sensitivity, creating a well-balanced sound allowing solo lines to come through the texture. The repertoire heard here is successful, despite the inclusion of some less well known composers from the turn of the century. It has much to offer. The playing is consistently excellent and there is a wonderful range of expression. This makes a very good addition to any CD collection.



Bryce Morrison
Gramophone, January 2010

Proudly individual French music played with great care and authority

Here are five late-19th-and early-20th-century French composers gathered together to illustrate what the booklet-note so rightly calls an “emancipation from Germanic cultural values”. Sharply individual, all five none the less show a “clarity and refinement, brio and wit, and subtle sensuality” that are inimitably Gallic.

They also pay unmistakable tribute to Debussy and Ravel. The influence of Prélude à L’après-midi d’une faune hangs heavily over Tournier’s Suite, most notably in the opening Soir: Calme et expressif. There is an exotic twist to the Lied: Assez lent, avec mélancolie reflecting Debussy’s fascination with the East but it says much for Tournier that he maintains his own voice and character. Florent Schmitt, who studied with Fauré, also shows a fleeting love of the Orient before continuing with a gracefully flowing Minuet and whirlwind finale. Pierné (whose Variations for solo piano were greatly admired by Cortot) sounds a more substantial note with much restrained but demanding virtuosity in his finale, while Françaix closes his characteristically piquant Quintet with a Rondo based on the folksong “Savez-vous planter les choux?” and a touch of outrageousness.

Finally Roussel and a more astringent modernist style, including a flourish from the harp like a sudden cascade of stardust in the central Andante and some ghostly glissandi behind the final Presto’s hyperactivity. All this alternately thoughtful and exuberant music is played with great care and authority by the Mirage Quintet who never mistake a term such as animé for fast. Brilliantly alive to their challenge, they have been well recorded.



Oleg Ledeniov
MusicWeb International, January 2010

The recording is demonstration-class, ideally capturing both the flute’s highest leaps and the harp’s resonating echoes…what makes this disc so special, is the playing, the blending, the balance, the surprises, the turns and twists, the flow, the airiness, the soft bliss granted by the Mirage Quintet…



Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, January 2010

It is a graceful combination of instruments…hearing it is like walking through an exhibit of antique jewelry…Albert Roussel’s sophisticated Sérénade speaks in the composer’s distinctive voice, which is both exotic and neo-Classical.



Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, October 2009

AUDIOPHILE

Featuring five late romantic works for flute, harp and string trio (violin, viola and cello), you’ll find this release a musical platter of French pastries that’s hard to resist. Written between 1925 and 1937, each of the selections is by a different composer, but all share an affinity with the music of Debussy (1862–1918).

Marcel Tournier (1879–1951) is best remembered as one of France’s greatest harpists, but he also wrote some memorable music, like the suite (Op. 34, c. 1930) which opens this CD. In four movements, the opening “Soir” is a gorgeous nocturnal reverie, while the “Danse,” “Lied” and “Fête” movements all have the innocence of a Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) painting. Ravel’s (1875–1937) Introduction and Allegro (1905), which Tournier probably played, may well have been a source of inspiration.

Florent Schmitt’s (1870–1958) four-movement Suite en rocaille of 1937 follows. “En rocaille” is probably best translated as “in rococo style,” which certainly seems to fit this whimsical chamber offering. Intricately detailed, it exudes Gallic charm.

Gabriel Pierné (1863–1937) wrote some captivating chamber music, and the Variations libres et finale of 1933 that’s next is no exception. The refinement and grace characterizing his works are present in this meticulously crafted piece. No one plays second fiddle here, as each of its parts is not only a challenge to play but memorable for its content.

Many may find Jean Françaix’s Quintette dating from 1932 the high point of this disc. In four movements that alternate between slow and fast, the first and third are lovely, lazy lullabies which fall easily on the ear. The second and fourth possess that melodic as well as rhythmic cheekiness and irreverence that make this composer’s music so infectious.

Albert Roussel’s (1869–1937) Sérénade dating from 1925 is probably the best known selection included here. Neoclassical with only hints of impressionism, this exquisitely structured, chromatically colorful three-movement work shows the influence of his teacher Vincent d’Indy. The rhythmically spiky opening allegro and dreamy andante that follow presage Albert’s ballet Bacchus et Ariane of five years later. The final presto is an elegant stylistic encapsulation of the composer spiced with some concluding violin glissandi that make this diminutive work a French chamber masterpiece.

Made up of musicians who were or still are associated with some of Canada’s finest orchestras, the Mirage Quintet delivers letter-perfect performances of everything here. This is one of those rare ensembles where each of its members is obviously a virtuoso but very much aware that successful chamber music is a team effort requiring a concerted ego.

The sonics are exemplary, with the violin, flute, viola, harp and cello appearing from left to right across a generous soundstage in the warm acoustics of St. Anne’s Church in Toronto, Canada. The instruments are ideally captured, with none of that high-end flute flare typical of many digital recordings. The strings are silky smooth and the harp tone, perfectly rounded. This disc is a good test of a speaker system’s imaging capabilities.



Robert R. Reilly
InsideCatholic.com, October 2009

I must give mention, if only briefly, to a wonderful Naxos CD of French Flute Chamber Music, because it contains meltingly lovely works from the early 20th century that capture so perfectly that French specialty in sensuality and languor—the kind that seems to flit over you like a sweet breeze. The Mirage Quintet captures the magic in the works of Marcel Tournier, Florent Schmitt, Gabriel Pierné, Jean Françaix, and Albert Roussel.



Dean Frey
The Villa-Lobos Magazine, September 2009

This year is not only the Ano Villa-Lobos in Brazil (the 50th Anniversary of his death), but also the Ano da França no Brasil, the Year of France. Villa-Lobos had a close relationship with France; Paris was his second home in the 1920s and the 1950s. He had many close friends amongst the musicians of France: Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messiaen, Florent Schmitt.

This new CD of French Flute Chamber Music from Naxos contains music from many of the composers Villa hung out with in Paris, and more importantly, the music on this disc participates in a certain style and sound from that time that Villa made his own, in works like the Nonetto, the Choros series, and the great early piano works.

The 1970s pop/rock group E.L.O. (Electric Light Orchestra) was famously formed to “pick up where [The Beatles’] ‘I Am the Walrus’ left off.” Similarly, all the works on this CD come out of the sound world created by a single piece: Maurice Ravel’s 1905 Introduction et Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet, and String Quartet. This lineup of composers comes from Ravel’s generation, except for the youngster Françaix, who is 30–40 years younger than the rest. The pieces were all written in the 1920s or 1930s, all of them for flute, harp, and strings.

Though the music exists in that same sound world, subtle differences in the personalities of the composers emerge. Françaix is playful, Roussel muscular, and Schmitt nostalgic and a bit sentimental. Marcel Tournier’s Suite, Op. 34 is a special treat. I knew, and enjoyed, the piece from a Hanssler Classic CD with the Linos Harp Quintet, but the Mirage Quintet give the work a forward momentum and depth that really makes it stand out. You can get a feel for this from the Mirage Quintet’s YouTube video of the 3rd Movement (Lied: Assez Lent, Avec Melancolie) filmed during the CD recording in Toronto in 2007.

This recording took place under the watchful eyes and ears of the great team of Bonnie Silver & Norbert Kraft, who between them share producer, engineer, and editor functions. Kraft, by the way, is the very same guitarist who completely nailed the Villa-Lobos guitar music for Naxos in 2000. The sound on the new disc is predictably excellent, though some might argue that Robert Aitken’s flute is too forward in the mix. It’s hard to see how this music could be played or presented any better.

In 1957 Villa-Lobos wrote his Quintette Instrumental for Flute, violin, viola, cello, and harp, which looks back to the Ravel and Debussy models, and perhaps also to works like the Roussel Serenade and the Quintet by Guy Ropartz. But Villa’s distinctive voice comes out very strongly in this late masterpiece. I would move the Villa-Lobos work to the top of the list of the pieces I’ve discussed in this review (all right, second after the Ravel!)



Colin Eatock
The WholeNote, September 2009

Even if the group is just a mirage, its players are all fine musicians: Canada’s reigning flutist, Robert Aitken; leading studio musician and Aitken’s long-time recital partner, harpist Erica Goodman; violinist Jacques Israelievitch, recently retired as concertmaster of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra; and violist Teng Li and cellist Winona Zelenka, both current principals of that orchestra.

The music is also quite fine: several works are thoroughly impressionistic in style, others are touched with neo-classicism, but all are very French. CD collectors shouldn’t be discouraged if some of the early 20th-century compositions recorded here are unfamiliar.

Marcel Tournier was himself a harpist, as his lush writing for the instrument suggests. But his Op.34 Suite isn’t just a showpiece for the harp; it’s true chamber music, with a sophisticated interplay of instrumental forces. I particularly like the way the Mirage players dig into the final movement’s big, emphatic chords with an expansive sweep.

Similarly, Florent Schmitt’s Suite en rocaille Op. 84 is an elegant work—although there’s an edgy urgency in the second and fourth movements. And Gabriel Pierné’s Variations libres et finale derives an archaic quality from the composer’s use of the Lydian mode. Jean Françaix’s Quintette is a charming piece; and so is Roussel’s Sérénade Op. 30, although its instrumental effects and harmonic leanings also give it a quirky, modernist quality.

This isn’t the deepest music ever written—it’s a little too suave to be profound. But it is enjoyable, and very well performed.



Arthur S. Leonard
Leonard Link, August 2009

Sheer Loveliness

A new Naxos CD release has me straining for superlatives to describe it. Titled “French Flute Chamber Music,” it presents a bit more than one hour of pieces for a chamber ensemble comprising flute, harp, and three string players. They go collectively as Mirage Quintet, but I’m uncertain whether this is an ad hoc ensemble put together for this recording or a group of soloists who regularly come together for chamber music. Some of the individual names are familiar, especially flute player Robert Aitken, who has made many solo recordings, and violinist Jacques Israelivitch. The other musicians are harpist Erica Goodman, who has made her own recordings, violist Teng Li from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, And cellist Winona Zelenka, who is also temporarily affiliated with the Toronto SO as Acting Principal.

The program is eclectic but all of a piece—that is, all the French composers here write in a style similar enough that sitting through the entire disc without a break is not recommended. This music does best if the disc is heard in stages. But each piece on its own is stunningly beautiful, and there is at least one composer discovery—Marcel Tournier, of whom I had not previously heard, and whose Suite leads off the disc with style. The other, more familiar, names are Florent Schmitt, Gabriel Pierne, Jean Françaix, and Albert Roussel. Maybe not household words among more casual classical music fans, but reasonably well known to the more dedicated listeners. And each is represented by an excellently made, beautifully arranged piece. This sounds like it will be compulsive listening for me. Great for the iPod!



David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009

Chamber music from five of the leading group of French composers working in the 20th century and sharing the heritage of Debussy and Ravel. Their chamber music was awash with sensuality, brio, wit and the languorous refinement only Gallic composers could successfully create. It is obvious, from the calm and introverted opening movement of Marcel Tournier’s Suite, that the music has found admirable performers in the multi-national Mirage Quintet. The composer was a distinguished harpist, the juxtaposition of flute and harp providing the score’s framework, the limpid second movement, named Danse, being among the most beguiling in French chamber music, its finale bristling with happiness. Florent Schmitt’s Suite en rocaille from 1937 was a throwback to Debussy’s Danse sacree et danse profane with a few pungent harmonies to attest to its date of composition. This only just qualifies for the disc’s name, as the score is shared among its instruments, and it is here that we find the disc’s one drawback, for the engineers have given solo status to Robert Aitken’s flute throughout, the instrument leaping out of an otherwise well-balanced texture. Pierne’s Variations libres et finale is fortunately self-correcting in this aspect, the instruments each given a solo role to create the overall sound. Jean Francaix, a composer whose oft use impish harmonic twists is so engaging, is at his most enticing in the Quintette, yet somehow his music always drops by the recording industry’s wayside. Albert Roussel’s Serenade is a much more substantial and weighty piece, and shows a shift away from the Impressionist era. It was dedicated to a flautist, though the instrument is indeed cast more as a group member. The playing is outstanding throughout; the intonation impeccable; the sound smooth and enchanting. Save for my balance reservation it is a well recommended disc.






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