On the afternoon of November 11, in the Nelson Music Room, soprano Penelope Jensen and pianist Jane Hawkins presented a recital that served as a reminder–if one were needed–that while it’s nice to have big-name visitors come here to perform, we are also blessed with some great artists who live and work in our midst. The program was remarkable in that it covered all the customary bases but nonetheless encompassed some rare and unusual music. The concert was remarkable, too, in terms of the high levels of accomplishment consistently demonstrated by the two performers. 

First up was Benjamin Britten’s edition of Purcell’s “The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation,” from the collection known as “Harmonia Sacra.” The text is by Nahum Tate, librettist of “Dido and Aeneas,” which contains the famous “Lament, one of the composer’s best-known works. Like that powerful aria, the song presented on this occasion is haunting, and it was delivered with amazing power and emotional directness. It served as a marvelous introduction to Britten’s own “Winter Words,” a collection of songs based on texts by Thomas Hardy. This eight-song set is not a cycle, per se, but it stands as Britten’s response to Schubert’s Winterreise, and it addresses many of the same issues. “Winter Words” was composed with the voice of Peter Pears in mind, and the classic recording, originally issued in the US on the London label, was made by that tenor and the composer. We’d never heard it sung by a woman, but Jensen’s performance was gripping from start to finish, and it worked very well. Hawkins played with the lid fully open–there was no muffled piano sound on this occasion!–and was a splendid partner who rivaled the composer’s own rendition in virtually every respect. 

A group of songs by Mendelssohn proved equally rewarding, thanks to the wonderful interpretations they received. Hawkins began this group with a bit too much sound, given the low vocal range at the start of “Das Mädchens Klage,” but quickly adjusted. These numbers proved both delightful and insightful, thanks in part to the fact that the poems were by some of the greatest German writers–Schiller, Goethe, Eichendorff, Lenau and Heine. Even a tone-deaf person, hearing the texts, could have responded favorably to this lineup. 

The grand finale, sung in immaculate French, was a group of songs by Debussy with texts by Theódore de Banville. All are early works, probably composed in 1881-2 and still listed in some catalogs as “unpublished.” They included some titles that may have misled casual readers – “Fête galante” is not part of the two collections called “Fêtes galantes,” which use Verlaine poems, and this “Rêverie” is not the famous piece for solo piano. These were delivered with consummate skill and proved constantly engaging. The small audience responded with a degree of warmth that must have gladdened the hearts of the two artists. 

Jensen and Hawkins have made so many contributions to our musical lives here that is it difficult to summarize their achievements, so let’s simply say that both of ’em keep getting better. It is worth noting that there was no wasted motion in their presentations-among other things, Jensen knows what to do with her hands, so every emotion emerged in the vocal lines. The same is true of Hawkins, who played everything as if her life depended on it–which, in some respects, it probably does. The program included texts and translations, which were helpful, and credited the authors of the poems, which isn’t always the case. This was a class act from start to finish.