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. (Steven Ritter)