French Flute Chamber Music
Marcel TOURNIER (1879-1951)
Suite, Op.34 (c.1930) [13:46]
Florent SCHMITT (1870-1958)
Suite en rocaille, Op.84 (1937) [13:41]
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Variations libres et finale, Op.51 (1933) [10:52]
Jean FRANÇAIX (1912-1997)
Quintette (1932) [9:16]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Sérénade, Op.30 (1925) [15:53]
Mirage Quintet (Robert Aitken (flute); Erica Goodman (harp); Jacques Israelivitch (violin); Teng Li (viola); Winona Zelenka (cello))
rec. October 2007, St.Anne's Church, Toronto, Canada
NAXOS 8.570444 [63:53]

The man who first combined gin and tonic was either smart or lucky. The man who first blended a flute and a harp was a genius. Their voices combine like perfumes in the air. Add the three string instruments to the cocktail - and you get a wondrous ensemble, very economical in means, yet powerful in expression. It also furnishes a richer palette of sonorities than the good old string or piano quartet. The three strings cover the plane of pitches and provide counterpoint; the flute adds a third dimension to the timbre; the harp brings the magic.

And what is it so inherently French in this flute-harp marriage? Did this association start with Mozart's colorful concerto, written in Paris or during some Afternoon of a Fawn? I can't say, but this combination seems to be owned by the French. Clarity, wit, elegance: all properties associated with the French music of the XIX and early XX century and all naturally spoken in the flute-harp language.

It is very good that you are reading this now because maybe I have a chance to make a point and convince you what a wonderful disc this is. Will you believe me if I say that I absolutely love every minute of it? That it's definitely one of the best discs I have heard in the last year, maybe even the best. One can't guess it from the name: the album's dry title could come from a scientific magazine. But under this modest lid there are treasures.

If I had to describe it in just one word, the word would be charm. That applies equally to the compositions and to the performances. Yes, the five pieces by the five composers have much in common. They inhabit similar universes and styles though the Roussel stands apart. They share a lot: aesthetics, vigor, sensuality, variability, sparkle. It is bad to share all this? They all have this distinctive French flavor. The Quartets of Debussy and Ravel were without doubt a major influence, as must have been Ravel's Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet and string quartet. Maybe it would be wiser for the listener to pause between the works, digesting them one by one, refreshing the receptors. If you are holding a smile for too long it may become unnatural.

Marcel Tournier's Suite is inventive and sensual. Languid melodies fill the air, with soft evening sun, seagull cries, and sudden gusts of wind. It is a very atmospheric piece, instantly likable. Every turn presents to us a new tonal tint. From such a master of harp as Tournier was, one could expect putting more accent on the harp - but no, it is all fair, with true chamber interplay. Schmitt's Suite en rocaille is a modern rococo piece, elegant and playful. The fabric is denser, harmonies are more advanced, and some melodies are just irresistible. He had a melodic gift for sure. Pierné's Variations libres et finale are more conservative and introspective. The masterfully crafted variations flow without breaks. It is like following the course of a forest stream, watching the changes of glittering patterns on the water.

Jean Françaix was only 20 when he wrote his delightful Quintette. Under ten minutes, it is concentrated happiness. You'll want to join the cheeky dance of the Scherzo, and the Rondo is a whirlwind. Last comes the Sérénade by Albert Roussel, the most modern-sounding piece on the disc. Now we are in the 20th century for certain! The music is neo-classical, quirky, and harmonically adventurous, without the suavity of the preceding works. The middle movement has otherworldly calmness, while the framing movements sparkle with insistent rhythms.

The recording is demonstration-class, ideally capturing both the flute's highest leaps and the harp's resonating echoes. Liner-notes by Renée Silberman, in English and French, succeed in providing concentrated information in limited space. The Naxos price is unbeatable. But above all, 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. Probably an ad hoc group, this happened to be one of those chamber ensembles that add up to much more than the sum of its parts, although each and every one is obviously a solid virtuoso. I take all my hats off!

Oleg Ledeniov