Archive for Les Voix humaines

A viol record

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on June 7, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

I’ve never heard a bad recording involving viola da gambist Margaret Little. If you care anything about early music you will know her from a steady stream of excellent recordings she has made with a number of Montréal-based ensembles including Studio de Musique ancienne dé Montréal, Les Boréades and others for the ATMA Classique label. She’s probably best known as one half (with gambist Susie Napper) of the superb duo Les Voix humaines. On Senza Continuo Little goes solo in a program of French, Italian and English music from the renaissance and early baroque.

There are few instruments with as much expressive power and pure tonal beauty as the viola da gamba and since it could play both melody and harmony, there is some fine solo repertoire for the instrument. Little has chosen some real beauties for this recording. As would be expected there’s music by two French composers closely associated with the instrument: Jean De Sainte-Colombe and Marin Marais. Napper and Little have recorded Sainte-Colombe’s seminal Concerts á deux violes égales, so it’s especially pleasing to hear her in three of his solo works (he wrote nearly 177 solo works for the gamba). This is music that pushes the instrument (and soloist) to expressive and technical limits and Little excels. Little also makes the most of the pieces by Marais which were apparently intended to be played with basso continuo (the continuo parts were delayed at Marais’ printer) but played solo here. The Italian music – ricercars by Aurelio Virgiliano and Giovanni Bassano – require no small measure of technical flash and once again Little is up to the challenge. In some ways a set of pieces from Tobias Hume’s First Book of Ayres is best of all. Hume was one of the first and finest composers to write for the gamba as a purely solo instrument and the seven dance movements heard here really showcase his best efforts.

As I said earlier, Little has technique aplenty but also an almost preternatural gift for channeling the composer’s thoughts and communicating them through the instrument, for me this was particularly noticeable in the Marais and Hume. The recording quality really captures the natural voice of strings and wood and makes for some of the most intimately realistic sound I’ve heard.

Here’s a video from ATMA Classique

The sublime Les Voix humaines

Les Voix humaines

Posted in News with tags , , , , , on September 23, 2009 by Craig Zeichner

Les Voix humaines perform on rare Hart House Viols 


 News from one of my favorite ensembles.

“The enveloping warmth of the viols … shapes an infinity of textures.”     La Scena Musicale


 The incomparable Montreal-based viola da gamba (viol) ensemble Les Voix humaines returns to the Toronto Consort’s series at 8:00 pm on October 30 and 31 to perform on the rare, centuries-old set of instruments known as the Hart House viols. The oldest of these viols was made in 1598 by John Rose II, the most famous instrument maker in Renaissance England. In celebration of the 350th anniversary of composer Henry Purcell’s birth, Susie Napper and Margaret Little’s world-renowned gamba duo expands to an ensemble of seven to perform his haunting Fantasias. These concerts mark the first time all six viols have been played together in public in Toronto for more than 30 years. For tickets and information, call (416) 964-6337 or visit


The magnificent Hart House viols were acquired in 1929 by former Governor General Vincent Massey, and are now housed at the University of Toronto’s Hart House. The collection of six late-16th, 17th and 18th century instruments was recently evaluated to be worth more than half a million dollars. In addition to their historic and cultural importance, the instruments are objects of great beauty with intricately carved heads on the scrolls.


Following extensive restoration to bring the viols back into playing condition, Les Voix humaines made the first commercial recording of the instruments in 2008 on the ATMA label. The CD featuring Purcell’s Fantasias was described as “a gem of textures and polyphony” (Journal de Montréal). The secret of the instruments’ sound? “The resonance of three-hundred year old wood is something you just don’t find in modern instruments,” explains Napper.


Henry Purcell wrote the fantasias as a young man of 20 during the summer of 1680, in what music scholar Jack Westrup describes as “a fever-heat of enthusiasm and inspiration.” The fantasias push the art of counterpoint to the very limit — a testament to Purcell’s genius.


Les Voix humaines have been thrilling audiences worldwide with performances of early and contemporary music for viols since 1985. The ensemble varies from viola da gamba duo to viol consort to mixed-instrument ensemble. They are renowned for their spectacular arrangements of a wide variety of music, and have become a world reference for the music of Sainte-Colombe, the mysterious composer portrayed in the 1991 film Tous les matins du monde. In 2007 they received an Opus Award for Performers of the Year.


Les Voix humaines have recorded and performed with Wieland and Barthold Kuijken, Charles Daniels, Suzie LeBlanc, Rinat Shaham, Matthew White, Eric Milnes, Skip Sempe and Stephen Stubbs, among others. The October concerts mark the ensemble’s second appearance on the Toronto Consort’s series.