The Minster was, as ever, packed for this annual December event. While it was advertised as ‘Gloria’ it might have been even better billed as being performed by ‘The New Athenaeum Singers’. Directed by their recently appointed director, Cole Bendall, there was much that was both different and refreshing from past years.
Cole has set out his stall very clearly to his choir and they are already responding well. I cannot recall seeing The Athenaeum Singers demonstrate such rapt attention as they did in singing Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree. It was not simply that they sang without music so had no option but to look at their conductor: they sang with intense focus, careful attention to detail and, in submitting to their director, the music ebbed and flowed in very musical fashion.
There followed three more very contrasting unaccompanied pieces of seasonal music. It was daring to start with the Poston which is so exposed and, while the Choir used musical scores for the remaining pieces, they still focused firmly on their conductor in Here is the little door by Howells, which demonstrated a sensitivity to the text and clear diction. Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen by Praetorius was sung with care, though one sensed that the German was unfamiliar territory to some, and Gareth Treseder’s ‘The sleep of infant Jesus’ was a welcome addition to the choral repertoire, placing different harmonic demands on the choir who responded with good dynamic range and careful phrasing.
The Little Organ Mass by Haydn concluded the first half. Simon Dinsdale (organ) selected bright registration and light accompaniment while the Singers demonstrated good musicianship in singing through the lines to give the performance a clear sense of direction. The Sanctus and Hosanna had well shaped phrases and good dynamic contrasts and the Dona nobis pacem was sung with appropriately warm tone.
During the first part of the programme there were occasional uncertainties when confidence wavered and intonation strayed a little. Perhaps a tad more support from the organ in the Haydn might have helped but the altos invariably centred on their entries and had a consistently gentle assurance.
Vivaldi’s Gloria concluded the concert with solos from Jillian Bain Christie and Rhian Davies. Their singing was totally in tune with Cole Bendell’s approach to the evening. They both sang with warmth, sensitivity and precision, conveying the spirit of the text, letting the music do the talking and avoiding over indulgence and excessive ornamentation. This is a joyful piece with some reflective moments. There were many choral high points such as the secure chording in the Gratias agimus tibi and Qui tollis, the agile entries of the altos and basses at the start of the Domine fili section and the way in which the Cum Sancto Spiritu had excellent balance between all four parts and sprightly rhythms. The music concluded with a very firm crescendo and strong forte. It highlighted the fact that this was probably the loudest we had heard the choir whose singing was devoid of any forced tone, heralding an exciting era under their new director. Bravo!
A large, appreciative audience filled The Minster Church on Saturday evening for the Athenaeum Singers’ concert celebrating the choir’s fortieth anniversary. This joyous occasion was tinged with a little sadness as the choir was also saying farewell to its Musical Director, Edward-Rhys Harry, and Chorus Master, Rosie Howarth. The work chosen for the occasion was Mendelssohn’s masterpiece Elijah, which poses significant challenges for choir, soloists, orchestra and conductor – all of whom acquitted themselves very well in this performance.
The choir sang with great confidence from the start, obviously having been prepared well during the weeks of rehearsal conducted by Rosie Howarth. The numerical imbalance within the choir (where have all the tenors gone?) was generally well managed, although at louder dynamics the sound was dominated by the relatively large soprano section and the six tenors struggled to be heard. For me, the choir was at its best in the few quieter moments of the score, when balance, tone and diction were excellent. The singers were very attentive to the conductor and maintained a tight ensemble and attention to detail throughout the lengthy performance. There were numerous highlights in the chorus movements: the increasing sense of drama in ‘Baal, we cry to thee’ was particularly noteworthy; ‘Be not afraid’ was uplifting and the closing choruses in each part were exhilarating.
Elijah was portrayed very powerfully by Phillip Guy Bromley, who brought a combination of drama and assurance to the role. His somewhat free interpretation presented timing challenges to the orchestra and conductor, but the audience responded positively to his dramatic style. Soprano Mary Pope, Mezzo Soprano Olivia Gomez and Tenor Rhodri Prys Jones were equally memorable, each delivering a highly professional performance marked by confidence and musicianship. Alexei James-Cudworth’s clear treble voice rang our beautifully as he sang his short but dramatically important part from the pulpit. Tuneful and confident, his conversational responses to Elijah were convincing. The soloists were joined briefly during Part 2 by two members of the choir; Chorus Master Rosie Howarth and soprano Clare Bayman. They each merged seamlessly into the ensemble, singing with confidence and balancing the professional voices.
Accompaniment was provided by The British Sinfonietta, led authoritatively by Naomi Rump, with Simon Dinsdale at the organ. Professional accompaniment is essential in a work of this magnitude and the orchestra did not disappoint. There were moments when the challenge of preparing almost two and a half hours of music in a single three-hour rehearsal was obvious and the professionalism of the orchestra (and skill of the leader) saved the day. Even though a reduced orchestration of the score was used, there were times when the orchestra overpowered the singers. At these moments one would have wished for a larger choir rather than smaller orchestra. With only around fifty singers on stage, balance with the orchestra was always going to be a challenge; congratulations are due for success in overcoming this through most of the performance.
In saying farewell to Edward and Rosie the choir paid them the most appropriate compliment – an excellent performance. The audience’s appreciation was eminently expressed in its loud and prolonged ovation.
4th June 2018
CHRISTMAS MUSIC AT THE MINSTER
The Minster was packed for The Athenaeum Singers’ Christmas concert last Saturday night. Edward-Rhys Harry had chosen a varied and demanding programme, a mix of old favourites and some less familiar works.
The music in the first half was demanding for the Choir. Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Christmas Carols has extended passages of distant humming in the opening section, especially difficult if there has been no opportunity to warm the voice, maybe with a wholesome carol. At times the pitch wavered but the arrival of ‘all you worthy gentlemen’ allowed hearts and voices to open out and the piece grew with increasing conviction. Lauridson’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ demands an approach like the opening of the Vaughan Williams with quiet sustained singing and though the pitch occasionally wavered, the Singers were effective in conveying a sense of hushed mystery, especially in the closing section.
Between these two pieces was the rarely performed Oratorio de Noel by Saint Saens. The Singers relished the stronger impassioned sections, particularly in the middle movement: here they sang with assured confidence and throughout the piece the tenors, who were significantly outnumbered, held their own exceptionally well. Indeed some of the tenor and bass lines in this piece were very strong but might have been stronger still had they been raised up a little as all the Choir was on floor level.
The Singers had engaged four young up and coming soloists who were joined, near the end of the Saint Saens, by Clare Bayman (soprano) from the Choir: she showed great poise and musicianship and was very much their equal.
Osian Wynn Bowen’s fruity tenor voice was exceedingly well suited to the operatic style of the Saint Saens and he delivered both text and music with aplomb. Later, in the Christmas music from Messiah, we heard Emily Wenman (soprano) deliver the music about the shepherds with an impeccably pure innocence, Stephanie Wake-Edwards (mezzo soprano), who has a remarkable rich lower register, impressed with a beautifully controlled ‘O Thou that tellest’ and Michael Ronan (baritone) who had earlier communicated the Vaughan Williams solos with real warmth demonstrated an aptly sombre tone in a well voiced ‘For behold, darkness shall cover the earth.’
The Athenaeum Singers presented a light and bright Messiah. It had a joyful spring in its step and the texture had great clarity, nowhere more so than in their singing of ‘And the glory of the Lord’. It was great that the Choir never forced the sound and at times their singing was even playful, with a zest for life. Maybe ‘For unto us a child is born’ could have had even tighter dotted rhythms and there was the perennial issue of exactly where to place the ‘s’ but the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ was delivered with precision and ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ was a fitting climax to a great evening of music making.
In concerts such as this, orchestras can be the bane of singers’ lives and the evening can develop into warfare on a grand scale as choir and orchestra each tries to make itself heard. Therefore the Singers must have enjoyed being accompanied by Simon Dinsdale on the organ. If a concert is to have a hero you would be hard pressed to find better as he was a master craftsman and made the instrument sing in a way I find hard to recall in the thirty years or so I have known the Minster. He adapted wonderfully well to the variety of musical styles and I froze when, at the end of ‘Glory to God’, by some miracle, he made the angels vanish into thin air above the plains of Bethlehem.
TE DEUM IN C – JOSEPH HAYDN
We knew we were in for a treat when the opening bars of this piece produced a bright, clear sound from both choir and orchestra. The work was in three continuous movements, the outer two being energetic with a contrasting minor key middle section. The performance really drew the audience in.
REQUIEM – GABRIEL FAURE
It was courageous of the Singers to perform such a well-known and well-loved work but they certainly did it justice and, aided by members of the British Sinfonietta one would be hard pushed to distinguish their performance from that of a professional choir. The a capella sections posed no problems with either balance between the voices or intonation, and in the Sanctus in particular the Singers displayed their ability to sing both dramatic crescendos and pianissimo sections with equal aplomb. The beautiful and controlled voice of soloist Anghared Davies was showcased in the melodious Pie Jesu. Well done to the tenors, few in number, who introduced the lyrical melody in the Agnus Dei without appearing to be straining over the high notes!
Altogether a moving performance, ably accompanied by the orchestra and sensitive playing by the organist, Douglas Stevens.
MASS OF THE MARTYRS (A MASS OF ST DENYS) – EDWARD-RHYS HARRY
It is always exciting to be present for a world premiere performance as one never knows quite to expect. This work, as the composer himself explains, is a fusion of two types of musical work – opera and oratorio.
The drama began with the rattling of the church doors as the “heroine” – a refugee – breaks into the building in order to find a place of solace and safety. The richly melodious Kyrie Eleison sung by the choir interwoven with high notes by the soprano soloist left one hoping to hear this beautiful tune as a refrain later on – and indeed happily that proved to be the case.
All sorts of emotions are encompassed within the music. The anger expressed in the setting of Isaiah 59 was almost palpable in its musical setting, expertly performed by the soloists. Atmosphere was also created by the images projected on the screen and the imaginative use of the building as a stage – for example when the tenor soloist sang from the back of the church.
“I saw her this morning” was well performed by the four soloists (with the addition of two choir members), the clever use of discordant harmonies underlining the meaning of the lyrics. You really have to appreciate your opera to have enjoyed this effect fully but in the next movement, Agnus Dei, peacefulness returned as the choir sung a series of melodious sequences. The reading of the words of 1 Corinthians 13 and the grace pronounced by the priest were a fitting close to this unique and interesting work. Was Warminster ready for this? Judging by the audience reaction Warminster most definitely was, as the applause went on for some considerable time and the soloists and composer/conductor received a well-deserved standing ovation. One member of the audience commented afterwards that she found the work a strangely moving experience which had a profound effect on her.
Mention must also be made of the hauntingly beautiful playing by the oboist throughout the performance.
Concert 12 November 2016 Review: Requiem and The Armed Man
An expectant full house watched the well turned out ranks of the Athenaeum Singers file onto the staging at The Minster Church, Warminster last Saturday evening hoping to hear a great concert and they weren't left disappointed.
John Rutter's Requiem and Karl Jenkins' Armed Man formed the order of play - an appropriate choice for Remembrance-tide.
Rutter's Requiem, completed in 1985, combines texts from the Requiem Mass and the Book of Common Prayer. The opening movement, Requiem aeternam, was warm in tone and very together with almost all singers watching the director, Edward-Rhys Harry's every beat. Out of the deep, second movement, had a superb cello solo throughout played by Beatrice Newman of the British Sinfionetta, the superb band providing accompaniment. The 'in His word is my trust' climax was powerfully sung by the chorus with great diction throughout. Soprano Elinor Rolfe Johnson took centre stage for the third movement Pie Jesu, performing with a beautiful, rich tone showing excellent control on the highest notes. The chorus provided a lovely accompaniment here and, in the next movement, Sanctus, where they took over showed great excitement amongst sections, bouncing off one another - great! The Agnus Dei movement had good tenor and alto section entries which built up to a good climax, however, some tenors were slightly more keen to make it to the end than the rest. The Lord is my shepherd movement was another great example of richness and good dynamic control. The last movement, Lux Aeterna started with another great soprano solo followed by the chorus, sopranos slightly flat. The opening Requiem music ended this well controlled beautiful work. The members of the British Sinfionetta should be commended on their excellent playing throughout.
Jenkins' The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace is a work which has quickly captured the country's attention. A strong opening L'homme armé (1) from the chorus had nice bounce and assured singing, with most coping with the French text. The Kyrie movement (2) had a beautiful soprano solo, performed once again by Elinor Rolfe Johnson, eerie cello, Beatrice Newman and a good supporting chorus with a particularly silky-smooth bass section, bravo! (4) Save me from bloody men had strong tenor and bass sections singing in unison. (5) Sanctus started with a bump but quickly recovered. (7) Charge - the choir really enjoyed this one with great wailing, if a little embarrassed, at the end. Three more soloists joined Rolfe Johnson for (8) Angry flames - Olivia Gomez mezzo soprano, Kieran Jones tenor and William Drakett bass all singing with richness of tone, particularly Gomez. (10) Agnus Dei had beautiful soprano section singing and violin playing. For (11) Now the guns have stopped, Gomez was back with her exquisite singing. (12) Benedictus, another great excuse to hear Newman on cello, performing incredibly beautifully also great orchestral playing and lovely quiet choir entries sung well in tune. The four soloists, singing confidently started the final movement which led to a good, exciting climax. The final A capella section was very good and rather moving.
Praise must go to the British Sinfionetta, leader Nia Bevan for providing excellent accompaniment throughout; the four soloists; chorus; Edward-Rhys Harry for directing and Rosie Howarth, chorus master.
Neil Moore 12 October 2016
SUMMER CONCERT: A Night at the Opera 2016
Congratulations to The Athenaeum Singers for having the courage to break a very traditional mould by branching out from their usual concert programming and visiting a new venue. Their daring was rewarded with a capacity and appreciative audience at The Civic Centre on Saturday to hear ‘A Night at the Opera’. With the aid of simple programme notes and interjections from Edward-Rhys Harry, the conductor, we were guided through a varied programme of solos and choruses from Purcell to Puccini, some of the music familiar and some rarely performed.
It would be fair to say that the Singers were taken out of their comfort zone and one knew something was afoot when they were standing chatting animatedly in small groups while the orchestra struck up the opening number. This was no longer The Athenaeum Singers but a collection of wedding guests in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and tenor soloist, Luke Daniel (the groom), soon arrived to mingle with them. A chorus by Handel was then followed by the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen with Mary Pope (soprano). This opening trio of pieces encapsulated so much about the evening. Some of the Singers managed, with ease, to take on characterisation but for others it was more challenging. Most significant, however, was that in the first two pieces the Choir was required to sing from memory. Once they had scores in their hands for the Bizet, anxiety visibly fell away and they sang with an assured confidence, responding as one to the very beguiling Carmen.
Mary Pope sang on several other occasions and her performances were a highlight of the evening: she had poise and musicianship in abundance with a warm tone and beautifully controlled phrasing though it would have been better still had she lifted her eyes from her score more often to communicate with the audience. Luke Daniel achieved well in this respect, especially in his Mozart solo, but at times his upper register was strained. The trio of soloists was completed by Paul Fletcher (baritone): in music by Borodin his light voice struggled to project through the accompanying choral and orchestral texture but his other three solos demonstrated a gentle lyricism.
Instrumental accompaniment was provided by members of the British Sinfonietta and by Douglas Stevens, the choir’s regular accompanist. The Sinfonietta maintained a tight ensemble throughout and Douglas Stevens was always sensitive. However, while The Civic Centre had comfortable chairs, it did not prove to be an ideal concert venue. The orchestra, sited behind the choir, seemed as though they were playing in a half open box (maybe an orchestra pit?) and the electronic keyboard which was used for many of the solos seemed underpowered at times and had a very synthetic quality. The low ceilings gave a dry acoustic and at times we listened to quieter music to the accompanying drone of air conditioning and the distant clink of glasses after the long interval, though this did provide an opportunity for socialising and sampling some delicious canapes.
The Singers worked hard and produced some beautiful moments, the Humming Chorus from Madame Butterfly being especially effective. They presented one of their best operatic moments under the direction of their Chorus Master, Patrick Barrett, who is moving on to pastures new: their singing of Wagner’s Pilgrims’ Chorus had warmth, commitment and sincerity. In one of Purcell’s most poignant pieces, the choir conveyed genuine sadness at the demise of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and they ended with the Hebrew Slaves’ Chorus from Nabucco where, in a more relaxed mood, some moved gently to the powerful melody and all united to convey a real joy of singing.
Concert – Saturday 28th November 2015
The Athenaeum Singers offered an interesting group of pieces for the first half of their concert on Saturday. Opening with the well-loved Mozart Ave Verum, they settled down to a moving performance of Morten Lauridsen’s Sure on this shining night, with its unusual and beautiful harmonies. Next came a well-sung piece by the choir’s conductor, Edward-Rhys Harry, returned after a couple of years, followed by a Welsh song Y Bard, from tenor Rhodri Jones, whose finely restrained voice was a delight. Later his compatriot, Angharad Davies, in another song from Wales – Gweddi y Pechadur, was equally pleasing. (Incidentally, a translation of these titles would have been useful, but they didn’t get a programme note). Between the two came a setting of Ola Gjeilo’s Ubi Caritas; here the fine composition was not enhanced by a long introduction and conclusion on the piano, which, for all the careful playing, seemed increasingly contrived. A well-known Schubert piece Ständchen, confirmed the earlier impression made by Rhodri Jones, and the first half closed with Paul Mealor’s Ave Maria, evocative of a childhood experience.
After the interval, the choir was back on familiar territory in the Mozart Requiem. Good attack in the Kyrie and Dies Irae led to a finely contrasted Rex Tremendae, and then in the Recordare we heard the four soloists. The bass, Ben Tomlin has a fine voice but not one which blended well with the soprano and tenor, joined harmoniously by contralto, Beth Moxon.
After a suitably portentous Confutatis and Lacrimosa, the music emerges into brighter country in Domine Jesu and Hostias et Preces, and on to the bustling Quam Olim Abraham. The potent appeal of the Angus Dei was followed by the confident opening of Cum Sanctis Tuis (always a surprise to hear an echo of And with his stripes from Messiah). This rounded off a very creditable performance, ably held together in the absence of an orchestra by Gary Desmond at the organ. Much credit too, we learned, is due to the energetic young Chorus-master, Patrick Barrett, and it was gratifying to see a full house for this enjoyable evening’s music
Review by John Budgen
Brahms: Ein Deutches Requiem
SATURDAY 30 MAY 2015
The Athenaeum Singers brought the grandeur of Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem to the Minster Church on Saturday evening. Under the baton of their musical director, Edward-Rhys Harry, they were joined by two excellent soloists and accompanied by the British Sinfonietta, with the choir’s rehearsal pianist Douglas Stevens at the organ.
Edward chose to begin the concert with one of his own works. For Cecilia is a setting of Alexander Pope’s poem An Ode on St Cecilia’s Day. His compositional style is contemporary and accessible and it was obvious that the choir enjoyed performing the piece, producing a joyous sound and well-disciplined ensemble throughout. The soloists, Soprano Rhiannon Llewellyn and Baritone Nicholas Merryweather, demonstrated the quality of their voices and musicality in their individual contributions and were well matched in duet.
The evening’s main work was performed in German and, whilst the choir never sounded completely comfortable with the language, the uniformity of pronunciation and quality of diction were among the many praiseworthy elements of this performance. So, too, was the proficiency displayed in some very demanding technical passages. The apparent ease with which the choir tackled the two lengthy contrapuntal sections in movements three and six suggests a great deal of hard work had taken place in rehearsal – it was worth it. Mention must also be made of the choir’s attention to dynamic detail. Careful observance of the softer dynamics created some balance problems with the orchestra, but allowed for moments of drama at such points as the sudden forte entry ‘Denn alles fleisch’ in the second movement.
The choral sound was a little light in texture; partly due to the reduced numbers taking part (performing strength was well below the 65 names in the programme). It was also very soprano dominated. I wonder if the steeply tiered seating contributed to the internal balance issues, causing the men’s voices to pass over the heads of the audience?
The soloists’ voices were ideally suited to this repertoire, with a rich sonority that filled the space. Both demonstrated mature understanding of the text and outstanding musicality. Nicholas Merryweather sang with authority and conviction, conveying a depth of meaning in both of his solo movements. Soprano Rhiannon Llewellyn was equally impressive in her one solo movement, which she sang with warmth and clarity of voice. Whilst, initially, she seemed uneasy with the tempo that had been set, the ensemble soon settled into a satisfying unity. I found her occasional pulsing of each syllable a little disturbing, but her diction was excellent and her understanding of the musical line obvious.
Mention must be made of the orchestra, which provided excellent accompaniment throughout the evening. Balance between a relatively small choir and such a large ensemble was always going to be a challenge, which was not always overcome in this performance. There is a limit to how quietly certain instruments can be played (even with some judicious muting of the trumpet)!
The penultimate movement was, for me, the highlight of the performance. It had momentum and style. Added to this was wonderful control and flowing musical line from the baritone soloist and vibrant playing from the orchestra. The choir excelled in the contrapuntal allegro, with great pace and strong, accurate entries in all voices. Exciting stuff, indeed! We were treated to an encore in a repetition of the fourth movement, this time in English (How lovely are Thy dwellings fair). Whilst this had the slightly unfortunate effect of emphasizing the choir’s discomfort with the German, it was delivered with a warmth of sound and sustained line that brought the evening to a satisfying end.
This was a well-paced performance with which Edward, his choir, soloists and orchestra should be pleased. It certainly justified the enthusiastic and prolonged ovation from the audience.
Requiem for an Angel: Paul Carr
Spirit of England: Edward Elgar
The Athenaeum Singers gave a noteworthy concert on Saturday 29th November, performing Paul Carr’s “Requiem for an Angel”, which many will remember was composed for the choir and given its first performance at St Denys Church, Warminster eight years ago. It was written in memory of the mother of Paul and Gavin Carr who was then the musical director. This performance was particularly special since the choir was dedicating it to their father, Martin Carr, who died recently.
The work starts with a placid “Requiem Aeternam” and leads into “Te Decet” introduced by percussion (of which we will hear more) on through a brief “Father forgive us” to a reprise of the “Requiem”. The appealing “Pie Jesu”, admirably sung by soprano Rhiannon Llewellyn, contains the enigmatic quotation for a poem by Emily Dickinson: “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me”. This movement was sadly impaired by the lack of a harp. A “Chorale” follows with beautiful harmonies, sung with admirable restraint by the choir and baritone, Gavin Carr.
Now the mood changes spectacularly for the “Sanctus”, introduced by bongo drums in an almost wildly rhythmic style. Here the choir was less at home and was at times almost eclipsed by the orchestra with a full-voiced part for the trumpet. The movement closes with a tranquil rendering of “Sanctus” followed by an explosive seven bars of percussion.
The “Agnus Dei” comes next, featuring another quotation from Emily Dickinson: “The world feels dusty when we stop to die” with both soloists. Again, the brass threatens the balance and the saxophone makes an appearance here. The song “Do I love you, more than a day?” is nicely scored for baritone with a discreet choral part ending in a sensitive pianissimo. The “Kyrie” follows, interestingly mingled with “Father forgive us”. This movement calls for pinpoint accuracy, not always easy when singing very slowly and very quietly.
Finally, comes the “Lux Aeterna” with its persistent tonic pulse, relieved by Hebrew quotations from the psalms and taken up again when the soloists join in for an extended offering of no less than four pages of fortissimo “Lux Aeterna” (one had got the message by two, really). The work closes with a calm “How good it is … to live together in unity” and a final “Requiem”.
Not at all an easy work to sing with limited combined rehearsal time, and at times it was hard to hear the men’s voices against the brass and percussion. If there was an occasional loss of unanimity, it was still a fascinating departure from the more familiar repertoires.
After the interval, we heard Samuel Barber’s exquisite “Adagio for Strings”, a piece which calls for consummate artistry which, sadly, was lacking in this performance.
The final work was the topical Elgar “Spirit of England”. This typically spacious work embodies many familiar Elgarian motifs, not least references to the “Demon’s Chorus”, and, with the splendid contribution of Rhiannon Llewellyn, the choir seemed more confident than before, with the balance and contrasts well marked.
Overall, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the space and the dead acoustics of St Denys’ Church had a job to cope with the volume of sound demanded by the Carr “Requiem”, and we look forward eagerly to the effect of the more modest resources of the baroque orchestra planned for next June.
Finally, I have been asked to thank everyone who contributed to the collection for the charity Combat Stress. A magnificent sum of £515.00 was raised.
The Athenaeum Singers, under their established director, Jessi Pywell, gave a fine performance of Dvorak’s Stabat Mater at St Denys Church on Saturday. This remarkably little-known work presents a predictably melancholy aspect, given the subject and the composer’s sad loss of his children, but offers a richly orchestrated and chromatic accompaniment, and great scope for both soloists and chorus.A contemplative opening for the strings leads into a gentle statement of the subject, eloquently sung by Louise Prickett and taken up first by the other soloists and then by the chorus, finally with the brass. Here the tenors, despite their customary small numbers, came through well, and the section ended with a thrilling ‘Et tremebat’.
In the next movement, ‘Quis est homo?’, the soloists sang together to excellent effect, the counter tenor, Roderick Morris being outstanding. Particularly pleasing was the ‘Tui nati vulnerati’ with its lyrical orchestral accompaniment in 6/8 time. The moving and evocative text was vividly brought to life as it pleads to share in Mary’s sorrow and moves to a strong expression of faith.
Throughout, the soloists gave us admirable performances, though one wondered if the balance might have been better had the soprano been placed centrally. At times the trombones were a little assertive, (but they can only be played so quietly before they lose tone-quality). With a large-scale work such as this, one longed for a more spacious venue where choir and orchestra could be heard in easier proportion throughout the building.
The final ‘Quando corpus’, once more introduced by the soloists, broke into a concluding episode with the choir achieving a really splendid sound as they reached the ‘Amen’, after which a wistful epilogue by the strings ended this magnificent work. We are indeed grateful to The Athenaeum Singers for bringing it to our notice.
The Athenaeum Singers’ ‘Messiah’ at The Minster Church on Saturday night was a rare treat.
There was a sense of eager anticipation before the overture started and, as an audience, we were not disappointed. Jessi Pywell, the Choir’s director, ensured we had a stylish performance of this very familiar music, with Choir and soloists all maintaining good pace and excellent diction. The playing of the Chameleon Arts Baroque Orchestra was superb throughout.
I cannot remember time fly by so quickly in a performance of this piece. It was full of high points. The first class soloists were outstanding: you would not have heard better in the city.
Charlotte Ashley (soprano) hails from Warminster: what a homecoming! Her voice was exceptionally well suited to the baroque and her singing of ‘Rejoice greatly’ conveyed a real sense of exultation.
Roderick Morris (counter tenor) was exceptional, a communicator of the first order with an engaging presence: he had immaculate breath control and sang lengthy phrases effortlessly.
David Condry (tenor) brought a real intimacy to the evening, a chamber quality, as he sang his music with deep understanding of the text and a beautiful purity of tone.
Rupert Reid (bass) was a story teller and with a beautifully warm tone in the upper register. His ‘trumpet shall sound’ had great phrasing, complemented by thrilling trumpet playing.
The Choir’s opening choruses went well but in the second half of the programme they upped their game and often excelled themselves. They are to be commended on the way that they maintained a light touch, consistent pace, and commitment. The bank of choruses which open Part Two can fade with fatigue but The Singers maintained energy and momentum. All sections of the choir had their moments of glory: the sopranos with their light opening to ‘For unto us a child is born’, the altos with warm tone in a number of the homophonic sections such as the end of ‘His yoke is easy’, the basses with some lovely sonorous tone in several choruses, especially ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ but the tenors were definitely the most consistently on top form. They looked as though they were enjoying the music throughout and their singing was invariably sprightly, perky and well articulated, entirely in keeping with the mood the conductor had at her heart and which came across so well throughout the evening.
The Singers should be justifiably proud of a great concert.
In the choir’s second concert with its new conductor, Jessi Pywell, The Athenaeum Singers presented a well-constructed and balanced programme of 19th and 20th century French works under the title ‘French Impressions’.
The concert began with Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, at the start of which the conductor was a little hasty, beginning before all of her singers were ready. However, the choir soon settled and it quickly became clear that it was in good form. There was an air of confidence and the work was performed with excellent diction and dynamic detail; a high standard that was to be maintained throughout the evening. My only criticism is that I found the choral sound rather too sharply focused for the ‘impressionist’ style intimated in the programme, particularly at louder dynamic levels. Organist Paul Provost produced some delightful tone-colours in the accompaniment.
In a change to the printed running order, the next work was Duruflé’s Requiem. Modelled on the better-known Requiem by Fauré, Duruflé’s work nevertheless has its own character. His melodic material is drawn almost exclusively from Plainchant, to which he adds his own harmonic colour. The whole work is pervaded by a sense of peace and tranquillity, which I never quite found in this performance. The high standards of diction and dynamic contrast brought to the opening work continued throughout the Requiem. Some difficult technical challenges were accomplished with apparent ease and the choir was attentive to the clear direction given by its conductor. Paul Provost’s accompaniment was masterly, producing a broad palette of tone-colours from the organ. At softer dynamic levels balance, both within the choir and between choir and organ, was good. However, at louder dynamics the choir suffered from imbalance between its component sections (like most choirs there are too few tenors) and occasionally overpowered the organ.
The evening’s two fine soloists made their (all too brief) appearance in this work. Baritone James Geidt filled the church with sound as he delivered his solo in Domine Jesu Christe. He sang with conviction, combining excellent vocal sound and clear diction with well-shaped phrasing. He was equally good in Libera me; his voice ideally suited to the music and fitting well with the sound of the choir. Soprano Alexandra Stevenson gave a powerful rendition of Pie Jesu, with the ‘optional’ cello solo performed beautifully by Christine Draycott. The movement is more usually sung by a mezzo-soprano (as specified in the score), but the greater tonal distance between the soprano voice and accompanying cello made for an interesting performance. Alexandra Stevenson is blessed with a fine voice and secure technique. She sang with faultless tuning and diction and a mature sense of style.
Whilst I detected an occasional air of uncertainty in this challenging work, there were times when the desired calm was achieved; what a pity that it was marred by an apparent epidemic of coughing in the audience!
The second half began with Fauré’s Pavane, in which the French text was replaced with a succession of ‘oo’ and ‘loo’, which did nothing to enhance the grace of the music. This was the least successful work in the programme, with some noticeable uncertainty and insecurity of pitch in the singing. A marked imbalance between choir and organ at louder dynamics resulted in Paul Provost’s delightful playing being obscured by the voices.
The choir returned to form in the final work, Vierne’s Requiem, in which the second organ was played by its regular accompanist Stephen Cooke. Whilst Duruflé and Vierne were lifelong friends, their respective Requiems contrast dramatically. The choir approached the piece with relish, bringing to the performance a sense of drive and momentum. I detected some tiredness creeping in towards the end, resulting in some untidiness of ensemble and dropping of pitch. However, there was a good sense of style throughout the work and impressive interplay between the choral sections. The two organists provided a secure and colourful accompaniment.
In only her second outing with the choir, Jessi Pywell should be highly satisfied. She was always in control of her resources and directed a well-paced performance. There was ample evidence of detailed rehearsal, which produced a disciplined choral sound and excellent attention to musical detail. The hard work that had obviously gone into the preparation was suitably rewarded in this highly commendable performance, which justified the enthusiastic applause of the audience.
Athenaeum Singer's Winter Concert Minster Church,
Warminster Saturday 26 January 2013
The Minster Church was packed for The Athenaeum Singers’ first concert under their new director, Jessi Pywell. To say The Singers have made a good appointment would be something of an understatement. In a relatively short space of time Jessi has established a most productive and tangible rapport with the Choir. She is plainly an outstanding young musician and though the programme described her as vivacious, there were no fireworks or histrionics: she conducted throughout with an assured and controlled authority and drew real musicality from The Singers.
The programme ranged from Puccini’s Missa di Gloria, to three English pieces by Vaughan Williams, Purcell and Parry. The Singers rose to each challenge accordingly. In Purcell’s anthem Remember not Lord our offences, with unobtrusive accompaniment from Stephen Cooke on the Minster organ, we heard secure part singing and the Singers managed some of the curious harmonies with confidence.
In Puccini’s Mass the choral entries were light, almost spring like, and the opening of the Gloria was both playful and energetic. ‘In terra pax’ had a regal quality and especially in the ‘qui tollis’ sections it was great to see and hear the Singers so evidently enjoying the music.
There were many striking moments in the Credo, such as the strong bass lead at ‘Et resurrexit’, well imitated by the other three voices. Sometimes the strong brass and timpani, while creating a grand sound, over powered the Choir. However, the orchestra also provided some gentle moments such as the horn playing in the middle of this movement.
The two soloists, Matthew Sandy (tenor) and Timothy Murphy (bass), had strongly contrasting voices and each had solos in the Mass. Matthew brought a sweet innocence to the ‘et incarnatus’ and Tim’s mellow and dignified Benedictus was a high point of the evening.
The second half opened with the Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs. Matthew Sandy’s singing was a joy and he proved beyond doubt that he is a first rate exponent of the English song of this period. The Choir sang the final ‘Let all the world’ with clarity and vigour. Jessi directed this work particularly well, allowing the music to breathe, and the strings seemed entirely at home in this idiom.
The concert concluded with Parry’s ‘Blest Pair of Sirens’. It confirmed that the Choir is embarking on a new chapter of its history as the sopranos have a younger brighter tone quality than previously, complementing the usual alto warmth, and balance is good, especially evident when the glorious tenor entry on ‘O may we once again renew that song’ shone through the texture in the closing section as they all moved towards their final well paced and beautifully phrased final cadence.
Bravo! We all look forward to the next Athenaeum Singers outing in June.