Recital Review Print



"Divine Musick: Sacred Songs for Tenor and Harp"

August 8, 2003 - Chapel Hill, NC:


The third recital in Chapel Hill's University United Methodist Church's "Summer Serenade" series, given on the evening of August 8, was, literally, a performance of vocal music that bore the title of this review. The guest performers were DoubleAction, composed of Thomas A. Gregg, tenor, and Emily Laurance, harp.

The program opened with selections from Benjamin Britten's final composition, a set of realizations called Harmonia Sacra that he wrote for his partner Peter Pears and harpist Ossian Ellis during the last months of his life when he could no longer play the piano. These are settings of texts set earlier by other composers and updated, as it were, for the modern listener. We heard three: "A Hymn on Divine Musick," "Lord! I have Sinned," and "A Divine Hymn." The first was the most florid and had the greatest number of repetitions, making for a lengthy opener, more daunting for the singer than for the listener, to be sure. Each of the succeeding ones was shorter by about a third than its predecessor.

This set was followed by a group of four French Prayers. The first was a pretty and moving setting of "Ave Maria" by Charles-Marie Widor; the second, "En Prière" by Gabriel Fauré, brought his "Cantique de Jean Racine" to mind a bit. The third and the fourth were both by André Caplet, respectively a version in French of The Lord's Prayer from a set, Les Prières , heard in its entirety last summer in the same venue (see our archives for a review of that performance, one of my pending "Best of the season" picks), and a quaint and charming (both text and music) "Prière normande." The composer was gassed and died early in World War I, apparently not too long after writing this latter work.

A group of three numbers from An Easter Rejoicing by Alice Parker, settings of English texts dating from around the turn of the 17th century, originally written for soloists, chorus, harp, organ, and percussion, and "freely adapted" by the musicians, closed the first half. Like the Britten, they were interesting modernizations - more modern than his, of course, but not startlingly so.

The second half opened with Daniel Pinkham's Antiphons , a group of seven brief statement sort of prayers to various saints and places all beginning with "O." These, too, are modern but hark even further back to medieval chant and were very pleasing.

Next up was a group of three settings by different French composers of the same text, "O Salutaris Hostia," used at the Benediction after the sacrament. César Franck's brought his wildly popular (thanks to another famous tenor) "Panis angelicus" to mind and is no less lovely. Fauré's resembles somewhat some of the music of his beautiful Requiem. Arthur Honegger's, written not for the church but for the film Cavalcade d' Amour (the same vehicle in which Francis Poulenc's La Cheminée du Roi René , performed on a program in Duke's Summer Chamber Music Festival covered by this reviewer, made its first local appearance), was exquisite, almost ethereal.

The last programmed work was Paul Burkhard's "Das Gebet" from his dramatic work Das Examen , somewhat humorous in the context of an unprepared student facing the acid test but an impressive ending when standing on its own, which it does well because the text itself is framed in generalities. As an encore, the pair offered one of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Five Mystical Songs , "The Call." It was a fitting return to quiet calm.

Gregg has a fine voice and his diction in the four languages sung was excellent. His breath and volume control are phenomenal; he produced gorgeous pianissimi in the Honneger "O Salutaris," for example. His demeanor and vocal production varied appropriately for the works and covered a fairly broad range, no broader than would be appropriate in a concert of sacred music. Laurance's playing was equally impressive. The blend was superb, neither ever completely covering the other and each standing out slightly at the right times.

Attending a DoubleAction recital is a treat for the ears akin to that of a rich, expensive French pastry for the tongue. The product is made of the finest ingredients, blended and fashioned into an attractive and delicate whole that is to be partaken slowly and savored. One listens enraptured and hesitates to applaud out of the desire to prolong the pleasure and sustain the mood. The duo's programs are always well planned, well crafted, and well performed. Somehow the artists routinely manage to find obscure gems that the listener is glad were brought out for inspection. The printed programs invariably include all the texts and translations (often done by Gregg) when they are not in English (with credits for both) and succinct but meaty notes on the composers and the works. They are true models for emulation.

It was a pity that only about 30 people came for this divine dessert.