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.

Stephen Smith