Archive for Margaret Little

Best of 2010

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2010 by Craig Zeichner

It’s been a pretty good year for early music recordings with self-produced projects and indie label releases rising to the top of the class. Two New York-based ensembles won glory this year and recordings on the ATMA Classique label proved that Montréal is an early music capitol city. Here’s some of the best, what were your favorites?

Claude-Bénigne Balbastre: Music for Harpsichord
Elizabeth Farr, harpsichord

Farr plays a big Keith Hill harpsichord with two buff stops and makes a great case for this music which balances wit with tenderness.

I Mercanti Di Venezia

La Bande Montréal
Eric Milnes, director
(ATMA Classique)

This is a superb recording of music by Jewish composers in Italy. It’s performed by an ensemble of A-list players from the city which has supplanted Boston as the epicenter of North American early music.

Monteverdi: Vespro della Beata Vergine
Green Mountain Project
Jolle Greenleaf and Scott Metcalfe, directors
(Green Mountain Project)

This was one of the most inspiring stories of the year, a recording by a handful of super-dedicated musicians who mounted a production of the Vespers to celebrate the work’s 400th anniversary. They performed the work on January 3rd, in what was probably the first performance of the Vespers in the anniversary year. By the way, it’s one of the very best recordings of the Vespers out there.

You can order directly from the Green Mountain Project and proceeds will help these folks repeat the performance on January 2, 2011.

O Praise the Lord, Restoration Music from Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey Choir
James O’Donnell, director

Hyperion’s ongoing series with the Westminster Abbey Choir has been uniformly superb. This one has music by John Blow, Henry Purcell and some lesser-known Restoration composers.

Peter Philips: Cantiones Sacrae 1612

Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Richard Marlow, conductor

The Cantiones Sacrae are scored for five voices and glow with spiritual fervor and melodic beauty. The excellent Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge under the direction of Richard Marlow are marvelous.

Rosso, Italian Baroque Arias

Patricia Petibon, soprano
Venice Baroque Orchestra
Andrea Marcon, director

Petibon is ideal in these high-flying showpieces by Handel, Scarlatti, Porpora and others.

Johann Hermann Schein: Opella Nova
Michel Laplénie, director
(Editions Hortus)

Schein was one of the first German Protestant composers to assimilate the Italian style and write vocal concertos based on German chorale tunes—that’s a tasty blend! The French ensemble Sagittarius is superb and I hope they continue to record more of Schein’s music.

Senza Continuo
Margaret Little, viola da gamba
(ATMA Classique)

When I reviewed this one earlier this year I wrote, “I’ve never heard a bad recording involving viola da gambist Margaret Little.” I stand by the statement, this recording of works by English, French and Italian composers is essential listening.

John Sheppard: Media vita
Stile Antico
(Harmonia Mundi)

Audiences and critics have been tripping over themselves dishing out praise for this excellent ensemble and the truth is Stile Antico delivers as promised. Their vocal blend and tonal quality are brilliant, the clarity of their singing is top-flight.

Tudor City
New York Polyphony

While the Stile Antico love-fest/press blitz was rolling along, you might have missed Tudor City. I hope you didn’t, because this is a superb album, the best recording of early vocal music of the year. Worcester Fragments, Eton Choirbook music, Dunstable, Byrd, Tallis, Tye and Smith all sit together so well and the performances are stunners.

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.