The audience began laughing early in the second half of tenor Gene Tucker's recital last night in the Terrace Theater--subdued chuckles after a song titled "Epitaph" and a crescendo of laughs after the fourth song, in which Tucker made a slip, stopped, corrected himself gracefully and then started again.

Fortunately, the audience was laughing not at the young tenor but with him, with composer Ross Lee Finney, and with Benjamin Franklin, who supplied the words for an elegantly comic cycle of songs titled "Poor Richard's Almanac." Tucker might almost have made his mistake in this cycle (skipping the second verse of the "Drinking Song") on purpose; he handled the situation so smoothly and completely won the affection of an already friendly audience. But even without this incident, the Finney cycle -- ending with a wittily tender and touching song of married love -- would have been the high point of this very intelligently planned and beautifully sung recital.

Tucker divided his program evenly between American composers in the second half and everyone else in the first. He managed to sing a charming and fascinating recital without once resorting to the top-40 of the repertoire. Virtuoso gee-whiz was not on his agenda, although he gave a touch of it in the elaborate coloratura of Purcell's "Sweeter Than Roses" and the light, tricky "There's Not a Swain of the Plain."

In a group of songs by the virtually unknown Robert Franz, "Im Herbst" showed the strength of Tucker's lower register and his skill at creating a mood. In the six "Gesa nge an Gott" of Joseph Haas, he approached a Wagnerian splendor, although the music itself was only moderately interesting. His Duparc group ended with a beautifully atmospheric "Phidyle'."

The American songs in the second half showed Tucker's deepest strength. Besides Finney, and two Barber songs (ending the program with a very dramatic performance of "I Hear an Army"), he sang the first performance of a cycle based on texts from the "Song of Solomon," with music by 30-year-old Richard Hynson, a composer who has mastered lyric structures and cadences and shows promise of deeper work in the future.

Tucker, too, will undoubtedly continue to grow -- to polish and deepen the very substantial ability he showed last night, particularly in French and German repertoire, but in Purcell and American songs he is already giving vintage performances. Pianist Beverly Smith, given a variety of material as broad as the singer's, performed with distinction.