Arthur Honegger's Le Roi David, a "symphonic psalm in three parts, after a drama by René Morax," exists at the fringes of the oratorio repertoire. Live performances are infrequent, and its plight is further complicated by the fact that there are (apparently) three versions of the piece - a stage version, for which the composer's contributions were basically short bits of incidental music, an "oratorio" version with narration and chamber ensemble, and a full symphonic edition. One suspects that there may not be much difference in the original and the chamber versions, and the narrators (there are two) are present in the chamber and fully symphonic editions. The success of the work surely inspired other composers to take up Biblical themes, including Walton, whose Belshazzar's Feast was written after the first English performance of the Honegger.
The substantial score was presented complete, in English, in Duke Chapel, late on the afternoon of February 2, by three outstanding soloists, the proficient 28-member Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham, and seventeen excellent instrumentalists, including David Heid, piano, Justin Berg, organ, Jane Lynch, celesta, and members of several orchestras, including the NC Symphony. The narrators were Donald Armstrong and, portraying the Witch of Endor, Tamsin Simmill. Rodney Wynkoop conducted, and after the performance he told one member of the audience that this performance marked the first time he had led or heard the work in concert. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, which I am not, it may be worth noting that there's more where this one came from-Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher, performed a while back in Philadelphia under Charles Dutoit's baton, is a comparably impressive musical-theatrical work, and Frank Martin's version of the Tristan and Isolde story, Le vin herbé, would be worth a hearing here, too.
The quasi-oratorio that is King David is a stunning work. Its musical components betray its origins, but it is among the most effective scores of its type, and it was immediately apparent, during the Duke Chapel performance, that it is even more effective in the chamber orchestra version than in its larger incarnation. The reasons for this were audible in the distinctive colors and textures presented by the woodwinds, brass, percussion and keyboard instruments (there is but one string instrument, a doublebass), and in the comparably refined, textured, and yet readily discernible singing, which cleanly projected the various solo and choral lines to the close-in seat occupied by this listener. (I am not sure how well the piece came across, farther back in the chapel.) Orchestrally, it helped immensely that Wynkoop had mustered some of our very best local players. Experience has shown that the CSD Chamber Choir is a fine ensemble, and it was beautifully prepared for this performance. The dynamics achieved by the choristers were often as breathtaking as the music and drama they helped convey. And the music, too, is richly varied and changes constantly to reflect the requirements of the story as it unfolds. Narrator Armstrong was a constant delight, delivering his lines clearly and with great gravity and distinction. The tale is of course timeless in that it speaks to us across the centuries. Armstrong's readings did the texts full justice. So, too, did Simmill, in her brief but crucial incantation. In the hands of a lesser singing actress, this, like the scene in Verdi's Ballo , can lapse into borderline slapstick. There was none of that here. Those who believe in witches would surely have been convinced - and they'd probably have seen the summoned-up corpse of Samuel, too.
The solo artists were likewise splendid, vocally and as conveyors of their several different roles. First heard was a relative newcomer here, alto Robin Lynne Frye, formerly NY-based but now living in the Sandhills region. She was grand as the young David and in her other assignments. She might more accurately be called a mezzo-soprano, for the voice is not as fully powered in its lowest reaches as elsewhere, but this is a dark-hued work and she warmed to it quickly. Tenor James Powers was the next solo singer; he is still one of our region's most reliable artists, although sadly (for us) his appearances here have dwindled to next to nothing in recent years. (He remains actively engaged elsewhere.) Over time his voice has darkened, allowing him to project great richness when required, but he still possesses a top that can and does ring on demand. The soprano was Polly Cornelius, a singer much admired from here to Greensboro and beyond. She was uniformly excellent, on this occasion, as handmaid, angel and in other roles, thus confirming favorable reports from critical colleagues.
The informative and well-written program notes by Susan Dakin reminded readers that Honegger's "great model" was Bach, and indeed one number is a Bach-like chorale of transcendent beauty.
Wynkoop was in his customary top form, paying special heed to the needs of his soloists but managing the band with exceptional care. Only once or twice did the instruments seem to veer over the tops of the various soloists - including, on one occasion only, Armstrong.
In closing, I must return to the music itself, which is one of the delights of the previous century. Honegger is too little heard nowadays, but he was a brilliant master, able to use limited forces (as in King David) with great skill. He was Swiss, and he got this assignment, initially, because better-known composers had turned down playwright Morax's solicitations. Honegger was recommended by both Stravinsky and Ansermet, and King David put him on the map. This magnificent performance showed that their confidence in him was not misplaced.