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Flawless Singing, Lacking Flavor

April 22, 2008

The present efflorescence of countertenors on the vocal scene has allowed us to see the possibilities and individual variations in the voice type. Not surprisingly, since huge opera houses like the Metropolitan increasingly offer at least one Handel opera each season, we've discovered the large, thrilling voices in this category, dominated by David Daniels.
But as Ian Howell showed in his solo turns with the American Bach Soloists on Saturday night at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, size isn't everything. Howell possesses a light instrument, yet it has resonance in the upper register and is well-tuned, with a lovely, mellow, almost meditative quality. He is smooth and even throughout his registers, and musical in his phrasing, showing an affinity for legato and emotions of the plaintive and gentle variety. He never oversings or forces.

Indeed, Howell's greatest drawback is that he comes off as pallid in passages where a little more oomph is required. Making allowances for the church's acoustic, which is certainly not friendly to this vocal type, Howell's voice in the concert's first half came off as disappointingly bland.

The concert was as well-tailored to Howell's gifts as any you could imagine. It began with a Salve regina by Domenico Scarlatti, finished in 1756 near the end of his life. To conclude the first half, Howell sang J. S. Bach's Cantata No. 170, Vergnügte Ruh, the piece with which he won ABS' Laurette Goldberg Prize in June 2006. In the second half, he gave a selection of Handel's most famous arias.
Sublime Scarlatti
Scarlatti's setting of the Salve regina deserves to be more widely performed than it is. The piece centers on a lovely opening theme that suited Howell's voice to a T, especially in ABS' performance, which was transposed down a whole tone. Howell did the opening section full justice, particularly with his emphasis on "mater misericordiae" (mother of pity). At points thereafter his voice disappeared into the accompaniment, and he left some achingly beautiful phrases unfulfilled.

Technically, he was flawless, as several perfectly executed trills showed. But Music Director Jeffrey Thomas and ABS' terrific string band transmitted more of the piece's emotional core than the soloist did. The dissonances marking "lacrimarum valle" (this vale of tears) and the broad cadence before the "Amen" section were gorgeously played.

Reviewing his performance in the finals of the ABS and Henry I. Goldberg International Young Artists Competition, SFCV found Howell's performance of Cantata 170 unmoving despite his undoubted vocal gifts. Certainly, his way with the recitative, Die Welt, das Sündenhaus (The world, that house of sin), has improved — likely with some help from Thomas, who is unsurpassable as a Bach interpreter. Howell made imaginative use of the sound of the German to communicate Bach's sorrowful message, and his enunciation was clear and pure.

Yet his voice lacked the edge or bite, particularly in the midrange, to fully plumb the depths of this cantata's central section, and his interpretation was still far too mild to convey the passion behind the words. His performance was dominated by the galant opening aria, which sports a magical melody, and by the improbably pleasant final aria, to the text "Mir ekelt mehr zu leben" (I loathe to live longer). Again, Thomas was in charge, with a hefty assist from Corey Jamason's obbligato organ playing. Thomas built the ritornellos perfectly, and Jamason's nimble fingers provided the rhythmic thrust and crispness.
Handelian Heroics
In the Handel arias, Howell showed much more engagement. Of course, Handel opera arias are a great deal easier on our modern sensibilities than are the doctrinal texts of the Bach cantatas. Still, Howell's forte is the gentler movements. He sang passionately in "Cara sposa," from Rinaldo. The plea "ritorna a pianti miei" (return at my tears) received rhetorical emphasis from his gestures, while the voice showed more amplitude. The encore, "Ombra mai fu" from Serse, was marvelous — spacious, and lovingly phrased.

The martial arias between these two, "Al lampo dell'armi" (from Giulio Cesare) and "Fammi combattere" (Orlando), were less successful. The glittery runs and extravagant gestures seemed wispy, deprived of force and bravura, despite Howell's personal urgency of expression. The orchestra played brilliantly, as it did also in a concerto grosso by Charles Avison, based on themes by Scarlatti.

Ian Howell is moving up in the ranks, and certainly his artistry demands further hearings. It probably would not harm his lovely, lyrical instrument, though, if he occasionally channelled his inner rugby player.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.