Monday, July 27, 2009

Music review: Tableau Baroque elegantly demonstrates roots of Handel's art

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759).

By Greg Stepanich

A young four-man Baroque ensemble that was formed on the sidelines of a Seraphic Fire concert showed Saturday night that it approaches this music with the same sort of demystified engagement and crisply achieved performance of the choir that godfathered it.

Tableau Baroque, formed when longtime Seraphic Fire continuo man Henry Lebedinsky met countertenor Ian Howell during work on the choir's concerts of the six Bach motets, has just released a live recording of some of the music it presented at All Saints Episcopal in downtown Fort Lauderdale: a survey of the musical styles and composers who influenced the work of George Frideric Handel.

The program, called Handel's Inheritance, took a look at the three periods of Handel's life leading up to his move to England, which became permanent by 1713. Most of the composers on the concert would be unfamiliar names to most concertgoers -- Nicolaus Strungk, Johann Schelle, Reinhard Keiser -- but it all turned out to be worthwhile, interesting music in which the origins of Handel's stylistic debts were clearly laid out.

One of the finest unfamiliar pieces was the song Ach, mein herzliebes Jesulein (Ah, my little Jesus, dear to my heart), from a Christmas canata by Schelle, who was the music director at St. Thomas' in Leipzig nearly half a century before its most famous occupant, J.S. Bach. Howell was joined by group violinist Michael Albert, who also sings countertenor, and the two men's voice blended beautifully as they sang the devotional words about the Christ child making a shrine in their hearts.

Schelle's music changed rhythm and style with each line of the text, but was always unified by the warmth of its melodic writing and its dramatic straightforwardness; it whetted the appetite for hearing more music by this early master (1648-1701), perhaps on a program of Christmas music from the German Baroque.

The Schelle was preceded by a pleasant suite in G minor by Strungk, in which Albert, cellist Brian Howard and Lebedinsky demonstrated their fidelity to Baroque style along with an admirable sense of energy, and a solo allemande for harpsichord by Handel's first and only teacher, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. This floridly ornamented piece was in line with the tradition of earlier keyboard writers such as J.J. Froberger, and Lebedinsky handled its extravagant texture deftly.

The voice we would come to know as Handel's starts to be more clearly heard in the music of Keiser, who was the conductor at the opera house in Hamburg where Handel played violin and composed his first stage works. Keiser's opera Claudius (1703), from which Tableau Baroque offered three selections, introduced a composer of real personality, a man who wrote with wit and tunefulness. The March from this opera, played with polish and verve by the three instrumentalists, had a clarity and catchiness that surely gave Handel good direction for his future music. The two-part Overture as well must have provided the template for the kind of distinct contrast that Handel pursued in such pieces thereafter.

Countertenor Ian Howell.

The Hamburg years also saw the first use of a melody Handel would later recycle for his 1711 opera Rinaldo, that of the justly celebrated Lascia ch'io pianga (Leave me to weep), which was sung here with radiant tenderness and persuasive dramaturgy by Howell. He has a lovely singing voice, of a light, supple cast, and his ornamentations on the second time through of the aria were modest, tasteful and effective.

The concert's third and final section, detailing Handel's years in Italy and Hanover, featured a cantata by Alessandro Stradella, probably the best-known of the other composers on the program. La Seneca, a solo vocal work about the suicide of Seneca mandated by the Emperor Nero, was a good example of the variety that a skillful composer can bring to recitative. It's an effective piece, though it's hard to appreciate nowadays, given that music like this is generally heard as warmup to arias. Still, Howell was impressive here, tackling a long, demanding text and making the most of it, adding touches such as wiping his forehead on the words With dry brow and without weeping.

Following the Stradella was a cello sonata by the Handel frenemy Giovanni Bononcini, played by cellist Howard. This is a tricky, difficult work, full of double stops and high-on-the-bridge passages, but it's also quite beautiful, and Howard played it well, and managed maximum expressivity within the confines of a pre-Romantic tradition.

Three other works by Handel filled out the section and closed the concert: Quel fior che all'alba ride, a work from around 1741 which the composer recycled for the choruses And he shall purify and His yoke is easy in Messiah, composed that same year. But the original cantata is a beautiful work on its own, demonstrating Handel's great melodic power and the innate theatricality of his music.

Howell sang it with elegance and grace to expert accompaniment by the rest of Tableau Baroque, and closed the concert with two more Handel selections, two arias from his rarely heard collection of German-language songs, dating from the 1720s. Flammende Rose (Flaming Rose), a confident, upbeat aria, showcased Howell's fine breath control as he navigated the long lines Handel wrote for the solo singer.

The encore, the aria Susse Stille, sanfte Quelle (Sweet silence, soft source [of tranquility]), a gorgeous song in which the comfort of the grave as a release from life's woundings is extolled, received the same kind of reading all the works on this program did: Masterfully played and sung, beautifully realized. Not incidentally, this song also showed the melodic profile and harmonic imagination that distinguish Handel's music as a substantial cut above every other composer on the program, no matter how worthy or adept.

To show not only a composer's inheritance, but how he transformed and exceeded it, was the ultimate message of this concert, and it was in every way a triumph for Tableau Baroque.

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