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‘Soir Païen’ (Pagan Evening)
Alexis Kossenko (flute)
Anna Reinhold (mezzo-soprano), Emmanuel Olivier (piano), Sabine Devieilhe (soprano), Magali Mosnier (flute)
rec. 2019, Église luthérienne, Saint Pierre, Paris
Full sung French texts with English translations
APARTÉ AP227 [68.00]

The foreword to the booklet explains that Reinhold, Devieilhe, Olivier and Kossenko pay tribute with this album to their friend Jean-Claude Malgoire, a French oboist, conductor and early-music specialist who died in 2018 aged 77.

The renowned flautist Alexis Kossenko and his gifted collaborators have put together a captivating all-French programme, constructed largely of mélodies (art-songs), the voice accompanied by solo flute or supplemented by a piano. This recital collection is dedicated to the influential Debussy and nine of his contemporaries including Ravel. A fascinating mix of works, some well-known and some seldom encountered, is certainly something to savour. Adding to my interest is the use of flutes and piano of the period – see the end of the review.

The album is named Soir païen (Pagan Evening, or Dusk) after the title used by two French poets for different texts. Accordingly, the collection is bookended by settings of Soir Païen by Gaubert (who chose verse by Albert Samain) and Hüe (who favoured André Lebey).

The decades either side of the turn of the twentieth century, which encompass the belle époque in Europe (1871-1914), had a genuine effect on the Parisian music scene. Consequently there was a substantial artistic response. Many French composers were inspired to write mélodies by the verses of the acclaimed French poets of the day, for example Apollinaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and poets of past generations.

I am familiar with the composers included here, except Georges Hüe. Seven composers are represented by one piece each, while Caplet, Koechlin and Roussel provide two each. Two of the thirteen works, by Koechlin and Roussel, are purely instrumental. Kossenko’s flute appears throughout this collection, and another flute in that Koechlin’s piece. The voice is featured in eleven works, and piano parts in eight. The instruments have extremely distinctive tone colours, and can create an often-shadowy sense of mystery and rolling pastoral melodies. With stimulating mood, colours and atmosphere, often reminiscent of the natural world, it is easy to hear an impressionist soundworld to parallel the celebrated school of painting. Incidentally, Debussy and Ravel did not like their music pigeonholed, so they opposed the ‘impressionist’ label for their music.

Alexis Kossenko has devised the programme around several discernible themes, saying that ‘flute and the human voice are natural companions’. The dates span just over thirty years from 1897-1930, so the collection could be said to provide a snapshot of the French mélodies in the time that includes Debussy’s mature period. Another connection is how French composers were inspired by the culture of ancient Greece and their esteem for the flute, an instrument often associated with Greek mythology, particularly the story of Pan. Undoubtedly the flute was an instrument greatly admired by French composers and often featured in vocal music. A further theme is the Orient. Many composers of the day, and not just in France, were inspired by Eastern culture, including Debussy; here, this is represented by works of Ibert and Ravel.

Debussy’s Syrinx is undoubtedly the most famous work for solo flute, and is widely known outside the classical music world. Debussy was asked to compose incidental music for Gabriel Mourey’s play concerning the myth of Psyché, originally titled La flûte de Pan. Kossenko playing a Louis Lot flute (1880) provides an atmospheric and gorgeously lyrical performance of Syrinx. Given here is Mourey’s version of La flûte de Pan, with the flute part laid over the relevant text from the play, narrated splendidly by native French speakers Anna Reinhold (Naiade) and Marine Thoreau La Salle (Oreade) who just has a single line.

An extremely well-known flute melody forms part of La flûte enchantée from Ravel’s orchestral song cycle Shéhérazade; settings of Tristan Klingsor prose poems. A real highlight here is Ravel’s later pared down arrangement for voice, flute and piano, performed beautifully with mezzo-soprano Reinhold singing exquisitely and the prominent flute part sounding especially sensuous.

Koechlin is an undervalued composer, yet and a highlight is Le nénuphar (The Water Lily). Scored for voice and piano with flute obligato, this glorious setting of Edmond Haraucourt text is taken from Koechlin’s cycle of four Poèmes d’Automne. Reinhold is in outstanding voice. She provides purity and expression, conspicuously in full accord with the text. This is a rendition I find both soothing and haunting. The contrasting final stanza generates a dramatic episode. Olivier plays an Érard (c. 1902) with a most agreeable sound. The prominent piano part is worthy of note, and the epilogue with flute and piano provides a comforting mood. A second Koechlin work is the agreeable Sonate pour deux flûtes. Both using Louis Lot flutes, Kossenko and partner Magali Mosnier give a delightfully polished performance with the elevated level of excellence this work requires.

Reinhold’s singing of Caplet’s Viens! une flute invisible also caught my attention. It is a setting for voice, flute and piano to a Victor Hugo text. With this beguiling song of love in a pastoral setting, Reinhold relishes the import of the text, creating a sense of sincerity and innocence. Her persuasive clarity of diction produces an impressive breadth of vocal colour. Occasionally there is some slight unevenness in her production mainly when under pressure, for instance in the quick leap to her top register.

Roussel’s Deux Poèmes de Ronsard for voice and flute is sung here by French soprano Sabine Devieilhe. These two settings of verses by French Renaissance poet Pierre de Ronsard suit Devieilhe down to the ground. Conspicuous is her poise and purity of tone, and focus on the essence of the verse. Especially enjoyable is Devieilhe and Kossenko’s engaging performance of Rossignol, mon mignon where the rejected lover sorrowfully confides in the nightingale whose song is represented by the flute. Roussel’s only instrumental work in this collection is Joueurs de flûte (Flute Players). This cycle of four pieces scored for flute and piano is one of the most popular choices in the flute repertoire. Joueurs de flûte is named after flute players from mythological literature and religious gods: Pan the shepherd god; Tityrus (Tityre) a shepherd in Virgil’s Eclogues (or Bucolics); Krishna the Hindu god who played the flute in his youth as a herdsman; and Monsieur de la Péjaudie the flute playing hero from Henri de Régnier’s novel La Pécheresse (The Sinful Woman). In addition, Roussel went a step further by dedicating each of the four pieces to a flautist of the day: Marcel Moyse (Pan), Gaston Blanquart (Tityrus), Louis Fleury (Krishna) and Philippe Gaubert (M. de la Péjaudie). The flute and the piano have equal roles; one senses the pleasure Kossenko and Olivier gain from performing this cycle. Although the pieces are small, the duo treat all four with sincerity. I relish the playing of the first piece Pan which is light hearted and delightfully impish in character yet not without a glimpse of pastoral calm.

The Little Tribeca sound engineers ensure satisfying clarity and excellent balance between voice and instruments. The booklet, extremely helpful, contains a foreword, as well as notes by both Kossenko regarding flute and voice and Bernard Duplaix praising flute maker Louis Lot. David Le Marrec has written the main essay Soir païen with valuable information about each work. Full credit to the label for providing in the booklet the French sung texts with English translations placed alongside.

In this highly appealing collection of French music, mostly mélodies, the singer is accompanied by flute, sometimes with the addition of a piano. The players create a broad colour palette combined with a frequent heady fragrance. This results in a strikingly atmospheric soundworld, often with moments of intimacy. Unwavering unity of the performers is combined with appealing tone production from the flutes and piano. Mezzo-soprano Anna Reinhold excels in a gratifying performance from the heart. Gifted soprano Sabine Devieilhe is in engaging voice too. From start to finish, one senses the absolute belief the players have in each other’s technical and artistic prowess.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: William Hedley

Philippe GAUBERT (1879-1941)
1. Soir païen, for voice, flute & piano (1908) [3.35]
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
2-3. Deux Stèles orientées, for voice & flute (1925)
I. Mon amante a les vertus de l’eau [3.00]
II. On me dit… [1.45]
André CAPLET (1878-1925)
4. Viens! une flute invisible, for voice, flute & piano (publ. 1918) [2.54]
Maurice EMMANUEL (1862-1938)
5-7. Trois Odelettes anacréontiques, for voice, flute & piano, op.13 (1911)
I. Au Printemps [2.56]
II. À la Cigale [2.06]
III. À la Rose [2.39]
8. Écoute, mon cœur, for voice & flute (1924) [3.34]
Maurice RAVEL (1873-1937)
9. La flûte enchantée, for voice, flute & piano (1903, from Shéhérazade) [2.49]
Charles KOECHLIN (1867-1950)
10-12. Sonate pour deux flûtes, op.75 (1918-20:**
I. Assez lent [4.33]
II. Allegretto scherzando [1.01]
III. Final [3.18]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
13-14. Deux Poèmes de Ronsard, for voice & flute, op.26 (1924:*
I. Rossignol, mon mignon [5.02]
II. Ciel, aer, et vens [3.27]
15-18. Joueurs de flûte, for flute & piano, op.27 (1924):
I. Pan [3.10]
II. Tityre [1.05]
III. Krishna [3.22]
IV. M. de la Péjaudie [1.51]
Maurice DELAGE (1879-1961)
19. Hommage à Roussel, for voice, flute & piano, op.19 (1929) [3.37]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
20. La flûte de Pan (Syrinx), for flute & narrator (1913) [3.04]
Anna Reinhold (Naiade) & Marine Thoreau La Salle (Oreade)***
21. Le Nénuphar, for voice, flute & piano (No. 3 from four Poèmes d’Automne, op.13 (1897) [5.18]
Georges HÜE (1858-1948)
22. Soir païen, for voice, flute & piano (1898) [3.25]

Alexis Kossenko, flute by Louis Lot - Honoré Villette, No. 2862, 1880
Anna Reinhold, mezzo-soprano (tracks 1-9, 19-22) (Naiade)
Emmanuel Olivier, piano by Érard, 1902 collection
*Sabine Devieilhe, soprano (tracks 13-14)
**Magali Mosnier, flute by Louis Lot, No. 2358 (tracks 10-12)
***Marine Thoreau La Salle (track 20) (Oreade)

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