Early Music Review

Countertenors Are Alive and Well: Ian Howell with Tableau Baroque

February 27, 2009 - Asheville, NC:

The Cathedral of All Souls was the site of yet another exceptional concert of early music. Presented as part of the Echo Early Music Festival, a fledgling offshoot of Keowee Chamber Music, the performers were featured countertenor Ian Howell with Tableau Baroque, a chamber ensemble of basso continuo players Henry Lebedinsky (keyboards) and Brian Howard (cello) with violinist and countertenor Michael Albert. Their program, entitled “Handel’s Inheritance: The Music Behind the Master,” traced the influences of Handel’s youth and his residences in four sets (Halle and vicinity through 1700, Hamburg 1704-06, Italy 1706-11, and London 1711-59). Copious program notes by Howell and Lebedinsky with text translations, and comments from the stage throughout the performance, further connected the audience to the concert’s theme.

Founded in 2006, Tableau Baroque is dedicated to “bringing the music of the Baroque to life through emotionally connected, historically informed, illuminating performances.” They perform on either period reproductions (such as Lebedinsky’s Italian harpsichord built by Boston maker David Werbeloff), or instruments that are actually old, such as Albert’s violin. The cello was played cradled gamba-like between the player’s calves (no endpin), and both string players used short, arched baroque bows. The sounds generated as a result of their intelligent research and training come about as close as one can get to those heard in Handel’s time.

This is an enormously accomplished quartet of young men. Countertenor Howell has won First Prize at the American Bach Soloists International Competition and Third Prize at the Oratorio Society of New York’s Competition. He has sung and recorded with Chanticleer. Lebedinsky is active as a performer with multiple groups, and tours as a recitalist and clinician on historical keyboards and performance practice. Albert is active as soloist on violin, oboe, and as a vocalist, scores music for film, and along with Lebedinsky, is active in the Celtic music scene. Cellist Howard also plays the viola da gamba, as well as the modern cello, and performs with several symphonies as well as in concerts of contemporary chamber music. The group will perform this summer at the Boston Early Music Festival, a very high achievement for one so newly formed.

The program’s first set consisted of two instrumental works, a Suite in G minor by Nicolaus Adam Strungk for violin and basso continuo — very French in style with clipped dotted rhythms and shifting meters in the two fast movements — and three verses by Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow on the chorale Vom Himmel Hoch, performed solo by Lebedinsky on the chamber organ. Howell’s rendition of Johann Philipp Krieger’s strophic song “An die Einsamkeit,” our first hearing of the countertenor voice, was lovely, supple, and crystal clear. To close the set, Albert set aside his violin and joined Howell in a sung duet of one verse of Johann Schelle’s “Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein,” the organ and cello providing the basso support.

For set two the program shifted to composers residing in Hamburg, with two movements of a Suite by ‘Claudius’ Reinhard Keiser for violin, cello, and harpsichord, then two works by Handel himself — the famous Sarabande from Almira, and its derivative aria “Lascia ch’io piango” from Rinaldo. The set ended with a chaconne from the same Keiser Suite. The separating of movements or sections of a given work to include those of other works, as well as the performance of works related by thematic material (whether chorale melody or melodies from Handel’s own other works) was an ingenious programming idea.

Set three embraced the Italian influences, featuring a Sonata for violin and continuo, Op. 5 No. 3 by Arcangelo Corelli, notable for its exquisite slow movement ornaments. Inserted between its movements were sections of Alessandro Stradella’s lengthy solo cantata La Seneca, the instrumental movements cleverly positioned as to function as programmatic commentary on the serious text.

After intermission came three Handel works: the chamber cantata Mi Palpità il cor with a lively violin obbligato, “Quel fior all’alba ride” for countertenor duet and basso continuo in which one could hear echoes of “His yoke is easy” and “And He shall purify” from Messiah, and “Flammende Rose,” an aria surprising for its German text by Brockes. The cellist was featured in the three-movement Sonata for violoncello and continuo in A minor by Giovanni Bononcini, its last movement a charming French Minuet in rondeau couplets. The group’s encore, Handel’s “Süsse Stille,” another German aria, was a relatively simple and touching song of praise to God as the source of sweet rest.

One can only marvel at the intelligence, sheer musicality, and sonorous beauty generated by these four young dynamos, and thank them for their gifts to us.