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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 6

Baroque Profile: Les Voix Humaines

by Philip Anson / April 1, 1998

Baroque instrument ensembles are a relatively new phenomenon in Canada. Toronto’s Tafelmusik was founded in 1979 and Quebec’s Les Violons du Roy in 1984. By this standard the Montreal-based viola da gamba duo Les Voix Humaines, together since 1985, is a venerable institution.

Susie Napper and Margaret Little named their duo after a favourite viola da gamba piece by French court composer Marin Marais (baroque music theorists and performers prized the viol for its voice-like range and gentle timbre). Both musicians are active in other baroque groups including Le Studio de Musique Ancienne de Montréal, Da Sonar, Ensemble Stradivaria (France), Arion Ensemble, and Rebel (New York) but they are most familiar to Montreal audiences as the duo Les Voix Humaines. Ms. Napper plays a rare original bass viol made by Barak Norman in London in 1703 and restored by William Monical (New York) in 1995. Ms. Little plays a seven-string bass viol, a copy of a Colichon made by Bernard Prunier in Paris in 1982.

The viola da gamba is a baroque instrument like a small cello with five, six or seven strings which, as its name implies, is held between the legs. Despite its resemblance in shape and compass to the modern cello, the viola da gamba belongs to a different instrumental family. It has a fretted fingerboard like the lute, from which it probably developed, and is played with a curved bow held palm upward ("underhand"). Gambists have great interpretive latitude because baroque scores contain very few dynamic markings. Napper and Little practice together several times per week to establish a consensus on articulation, voice-leading and dynamics.

For some three centuries before the French Revolution the viola da gamba and the lute were the aristocratic instruments of choice. Court musicians and nobility played several sizes of viol (treble, tenor and bass). A wealth of music was composed for the bass viol (the main viol played today) and for ensembles (typically consisting of six instruments, two of each size) called a "consort" or "chest" of viols. The recent recording "Fantasias for the Viols" by Jordi Savall’s Hesperion XX (Astrée E8536) is a wonderful introduction to the viol consort repertoire.

By 1800 the viola da gamba had fallen from favour for several reasons. Rapid improvements in violin and cello building contributed to their increasing popularity. The violin was the preferred instrument of the growing lower middle-class and the viola da gamba suffered from its aristocratic associations. Countless violas were destroyed during revolutionary upheavals and the art of gamba playing effectively ended at the guillotine. Nevertheless a rich gamba literature by masters such as Bach, Purcell, Schenck, Kühnel, Buxtehude, Erlebach, Marais, St. Colombe, and Hume survived. The "early instrument" revival in the 1950s and 1960s led to a renewed interest in music for the viola da gamba.

Recent months have been busy for Les Voix Humaines and their frequent collaborator, 28 year-old Canadian counter tenor Daniel Taylor. The trio has released four compact discs this winter, which must be an industry record. First came a warmly-received disc of Henry Purcell songs and sonatas for baroque ensemble called "On the Muse’s Isle" (ATMA ACD 22133). This month they launched a disc of John Dowland songs called "Tears of the Muse" (ATMA ACD 22151) which is even lovelier than the Purcell disc. The Dowland album is not just a "greatest hits" album. The seven songs are separated by complementary gamba and lute music, arranged by Susie Napper, recreating the ambience of the Taylor-Les Voix Humaines concert programme "Flow My Tears". The duo is also commissioning works for viol from modern composers Anthony Rozankovic, Isabel Panneton and Pierre Cartier. Margaret Little finds she has to explain the viol’s capabilities to most composers but she hopes "the gamba’s ancient voice can be made to speak in the twentieth century idiom."

Coincidentally Naxos has just released two albums of "Captain Hume's Poeticall Musick (1607)" recorded by Taylor and Les Voix Humaines back in 1996. These two discs contain Elizabethan mercenary Tobias Hume’s complete second book of music, about half of his total oeuvre. There are only three songs on the Hume discs, including the fascinating and rarely heard Hunting Song, imaginatively reconstructed from manuscript sketches by Susie Napper for this recording. The remainder of the program is instrumental dance suites for viols, lute and recorder with fashionable titles such as "The King of Denmark's delight" and "The Earle of Salisburie's favoret."

Daniel Taylor’s next Atma project will be a Bach album with oboist Bruce Haynes. Les Voix Humaines’ current release is "The Spirit of Musicke" with soprano Suzie Le Blanc (ATMA ACD 22136): suites and songs by Hume, Jenkins, and Ferrabosco. Les Voix Humaines will be releasing another Atma album of Bach, Marais and Lully arrangements. Their next Naxos album will be Johannes Schenck’s Le Nymphe di Rheno (The Rhine Nymph) set for 1999 release.

(c) La Scena Musicale