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A balancing act of beauty and storytelling

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2011

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MEDFORD - Tenor Joe Dan Harper spelled out the ethos of his Saturday recital at Tufts about halfway through it, in “Sokrates und Alcibiades,’’ the third of Benjamin Britten’s “Sechs Hölderlin-Fragmente.’’ “The wise,’’ Friedrich Hölderlin advised, “often, in the end, bow before beauty.’’ The concert was a catalog of such genuflections, proving both liability and virtue.

Harper, based at SUNY Fredonia but a familiar presence in Boston (most recently with the Florestan Recital Project), makes every effort to cultivate a beautiful tone, his lyrical tenor shaped with ever-present polish and control. In Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe,’’ the control was impressive, even exquisite - the yearning lines of “Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen’’ were immaculately tailored - but also diluted the drama. The 16-song cycle twists the knife of its unhappy love affair by jostling the experience with the stab of its recall. Harper, interpretively eager to lace every phrase with shadow, ended up smoothing out Schumann’s juxtaposed immediacies, the poet-protagonist stuck in regretful memory from the start.

After intermission, the Britten promptly brought more variety and cogency. Hölderlin cultivated the poetic fragment, moods more intense for their lacunal reticence; Britten matched them with settings of paradoxically effective exactness. In a way, it gave Harper and his pianist (and wife), Anne Kissel, with their careful attention to tone and detail, precise marks to hit with confident purpose. (Kissel, sensitive and flexible throughout, was particularly good in this set, with a lightly-pedaled clarity of touch.)

Franz Schubert’s version of the “Gesänge des Harfners’’ drawn from Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre’’ had both moments of great allure and moments when Harper seemed caught between the singer and the song, unsure of how detached the narrator should be from the gloom of his ballads. A closing set of songs by Richard Strauss were more secure in their approach, though the approach was not quite standard: Harper sang them with a kind of light, operetta-like bonhomie, amiable but also veering close to preciousness. Had the recital ended there, it would have completed a line from the “Dichterliebe’’ narrator’s determined anhedonia to Strauss’s unapologetic froth. But the duo’s encore - Britten’s arrangement of the folk song “O Waly, Waly’’ - was an unusually complex digestif, musically percipient, emotionally the most wide-ranging journey of the evening. A well-told story can be awfully beautiful, too.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at