Mirage Quintet: French Flute Chamber Music (Naxos 8.570444)
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 Francaix, 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. Francaix 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!) Listen to the Quintette as played by the group mobius (also on Naxos, and available on the Naxos Music Library) and tell me if you agree.