Soprano dazzles in Handel

by Dr. Jeffrey Carter

posted April 26, 2009

All post-concert conversation pointed to one person last evening at the Bach Society of Saint Louis’ season-ending concert, and that one person was soprano Sherezade Panthaki.  Miss Panthaki possesses the perfect Baroque soprano voice – trills of wonder give way to roulades that would make most of us quake; the sheer beauty of her tone is like the air on the most perfect of spring mornings.

Miss Panthaki was clearly the star last evening, especially in Handel’s Gloria, a relatively recent discovery from a young Handel.  The six movements contain no depth of drama – that was left to Bach and Mozart in this performance – but the music is exuberant and beguiling.  Conductor Dennis Sparger’s tempos landed exactly on the mark, lending urgency and poise to the music, allowing the soprano to bewitch the audience.

Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227) is an introspective work in eleven movements, chorales alternating with some of St. Paul’s words in trio and choral settings.  A few squishy unisons aside, the Bach Society sang an illuminating and expressive account.  The penultimate chorale was tremendously moving, with whirls of farewells to the vanities of life.

The motet represents a mature Bach at his expressive best.  He leaves no descriptive moment unpassed.  Little touches of musical brilliance jump out at times, such as the silence after the word ‘nothing,’ or the sudden melisma on the word ‘alive.’  The chorus and orchestra savored these moments.

Bach showed up on the second half of the concert as well in a violin concerto.  Concertmistress Lenora-Marya Anop assayed the solo part with passion and clarity.  This was a fiery performance, as fine as one would wish to hear in any of the world’s musical capitols.

After a brief communion anthem by Mozart, his Vesperae solennes de Confessore (KV 339) rounded out the concert.  Mozart’s writing contains little of the cerebral that Bach brought to the motet, but is instead rather joyous and grand.  The chorus, singing Latin with German consonants, caught fire in the third movement (Beatus vir) and ran with that amalgam of splendor and polish all the way to the final ‘Glory be.’

Sparger brought Miss Panthaki back as part of quartet of soloists for the Vespers; she was the stand-out of the somewhat mismatched bunch.   The justly famous Laudate Dominum gave her one more radiant moment.  Her gossamer ‘amen’ at its conclusion was the kind of thing that makes grown men weep tears of joy.

St. Francis Xavier Church, on the Saint Louis University campus, possesses generous reverberation time and fairly clean sight lines.  The acoustic places a halo over the choral sound, but that halo means that the chorus must put a bit more zing in both vowels and consonants if the audience is going to sense the visceral thrills of the music.  One could have wished for more time in the consonants last evening from the 60 voices in the chorus.

The Bach Society orchestra brought sensibility and nuance to the Baroque music, employing minimal vibrato and an effective taper on longer notes.  Sparger has worked with this band for years; they read each other with the happy familiarity that comes from playing together over and over.

A quibble: why was the original German and Latin text not printed in the program?  Helpful program notes and English translations of texts are gratifying, but the sensory experience is better served if one has the original text side-by-side with the translation, at least in this critic’s estimation.

The Bach Society announced the 69th season before the concert.  Several of Saint Louis’s churches are set as concert venues for the vagabond performers.  Bach’s 325th birthday will be noted with a performance of his Mass in B minor, and the Rheinberger mass for double chorus closes out the season.

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