Les Voix Humaines is a group of seven Canadian violists specializing in the early Baroque repertoire. For this recording Susie Napper and members of Les Voix Humaines arranged for the set of six instruments known as the Hart House Collection to be returned to playing condition. These instruments (two pardessus, two trebles, an alto and a bass) date from the eighteenth century. But they were collected in the mid-twentieth century, at the University of Toronto, and this is the first professional recording using the Collection. That fact alone would commend this Atma recording of Purcell's delicate and graceful Fantasias: their sound, and the sound produced by Les Voix Humaines, is rich, vibrant, and has discernible depth and resonance. It also conveys contrasting textures generously, and with the greatest of clarity… listen to the sustained notes in the famous "Fantasia Upon One Note" (Z. 745) [tr.14], for example. These violas suite the style of Les Voix Humaines admirably.
Purcell's Fantasias are likely to have been written – feverishly – all at the same time in the summer of 1680. They are for consorts of from three to seven viols; Purcell is almost as likely to have planned more than the total of 15 which comprise Z. 732-747. They are a remarkable combination of pure counterpoint in the convention of the English choral polyphonists, with whom Purcell was so familiar and who represented the ancient tradition from which the fantasia actually sprung (the Franco-Flemish motet) on the one hand. And on the other the lighter Italian and – particularly – French styles that had so influenced the recently restored Charles II during his exile in Europe.
Purcell amalgamated and then absorbed these disparate approaches. For him also to have produced music of such beauty and distilled intricacy is remarkable. But he did. And without a hint of having done so as an "exercise". Their sonorities make all the more intriguing listening since we know that the apotheosis of the combinations of such styles was to result in the string quartet a hundred years later. The achievement of Les Voix Humaines is to have conveyed Purcell's technical acuity at the same time as his invention; and celebrated his apparently effortless command of the responses necessary to produce popular yet profound music at the same time as a offering persistent delight at how the viols work together as they do.
The Purcell Fantasias have often been compared to analogous compositions of Bach; to his "Art of Fugue", in particular. It's hard to think that the ensemble did not have that similarity in the back of their minds here. But their playing is totally present; it's completely consistent with the world of Purcell. And independent enough from any potentially distracting attention to the form of the fantasia itself to have produced here exquisitely beautiful and enjoyable music. Even though much of that beauty relies on the fantasia form. This means that they have relied entirely on Purcell, and how he saw the fantasias, for the way the music they produce makes its impact. While this ought not to be too much of a surrendering of control, it still takes courage. As a result, for example, some of the music's greatest appeal is in its ostensible simplicity.
By the same token, Les Voix Humaines have neither over-romanticized nor shunned the melancholy and intensity of Purcell's invention. Nor been tempted to treat all 15 pieces as a whole. Each phrase, each note almost, gets the emphasis it deserves. Color is never missing; yet never over painted. As though the music were transparent and revealing only what already existed. The fluidity and breadth of the ensemble's interpretations are all the more welcome when one pursues the hypothesis that Purcell did set himself some sort of ("academic") challenge in composing the fantasias. What we have on this CD is music qua music. For all that, it's tempting to think of fantasias as music chiefly for those playing them (as in many ways the earlier consorts were). No: the result of these fully-digested and thoughtful, not to say technically very accomplished, interpretations by Les Voix Humaines (Mélisande Corriveau, Felix Deak, Arnaud Leroy, Margaret Little, Susie Napper, Marie-Laurence Primeau, Elin Söderström) is definitely music for us to listen to.
None of the pieces is longer than about four minutes; indeed the whole CD lasts well under an hour, even with the addition of a couple of dances from The Fairy Queen and Dido's Lament (from Dido and Aeneas). But the 13 Fantasias and two In nomines are concentrated and intense music. So the construction adopted works nicely – with a touch of humor in the dances. The acoustic (the recording was made in the Église Saint-Augustin in Québec) is close and warm – ideal for the music, which should neither ring in our ears nor stop them. A suitably somber-looking booklet carries all appropriate information and background for the music.
Here, then, is an excellent set of performances. Other accounts to be considered are those by Savall and Hespèrion XX on an SACD from Alia Vox (9859); by Phantasm on Simax (1124); and Fretwork, whose latest version is on Harmonia Mundi (907502). Any of these will please. That by Les Voix Humaines, though, has the twin distinctions of a set of highly suitable instruments and an approach which emphasizes Purcell's cerebral side. Recommended without hesitation.
Copyright © 2009, Mark Sealey