Classical music review: St Andrews Voices, St Andrews

I Fagiolinis founder Robert Hollingworth kicked off the festivals first full day. Picture: contributedI Fagiolinis founder Robert Hollingworth kicked off the festivals first full day. Picture: contributed
I Fagiolinis founder Robert Hollingworth kicked off the festivals first full day. Picture: contributed
St Andrews Voices | Rating: **** | St Andrews

Now five years old, and suitably big and grown-up, the St Andrews Voices festival has rightly found a distinctive, valued place among Scotland’s wealth of musical events. And its distinctive focus – as its title suggests, on the voice, in all its richness and diversity – brings with it a ready-made wealth of styles and repertoire, which the festival embraces with gratifying enthusiasm.

In celebration of the event’s fifth anniversary, 2016 brought a residency from one of Britain’s most distinctive, flamboyant vocal ensembles, I Fagiolini, whose founder Robert Hollingworth kicked off the festival’s first full day on Friday 21 October with a public masterclass, imparting his decades of vocal knowledge to three Scottish singing ensembles in the airy setting of St Leonards Chapel.

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It not only displayed the educational activities of what’s primarily a performing festival, but also took us deep under the bonnet, in Hollingworth’s vivid description, peering into the engine of what makes singing work. He talked the groups through such minutiae as tongue shapes, micro-adjustments to tuning and Renaissance performing habits, but his explanations were as entertaining as they were bracingly practical, and even Indiana Jones got a name-check.

Across town, festival director Sonia Stevenson had come up with a simple but highly effective daytime complement to the festival’s live events.

Jonathan Harvey’s seminal electronic work Mortuos plango, vivos voco blends the tolling of Winchester’s great cathedral bell with the voice of his chorister son, all put through remarkable, ear-bending electronic manipulations.

It got a magical surround-sound airing in the rather incongruous setting of St Andrews’ 17th-century Preservation Trust Museum, whose homely, homespun interior provided a stark contrast to the work’s monumental energy – which by its grand, tolling conclusion literally set the ancient building shaking.

Robert Hollingworth was back on stage that evening for the second of I Fagiolini’s two festival concerts, a sophisticated French affair.

But despite the wine and cheese, and the cabaret seating, it was tough to conjure much Gallic atmosphere in the Younger Hall’s cavernous, brightly lit interior.

Nevertheless, the singers gave suave, immaculate accounts of two choral cycles by Poulenc, plus two oddities. The choral reimagining of the heartbreaking slow movement from Ravel’s G major Piano Concerto by UK singer Roderick Williams was rather mixed – its choral textures sometimes brought new piquancy to Ravel’s jazzy harmonies, but sometimes simply got in the way. And the large-scale Ode à la gastonomie by Jean Françaix was so stuffed with specific Gallic references that it was hard not to feel a bit left out of the joke – even if I Fagiolini negotiated its sparkling, jazzy idiom vividly.

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The day closed with a very different vocal event – a rare gig on home turf from local boy King Creosote, in the intimate setting of the Byre Theatre.

It was hard not to have Hollingworth’s explanations of vocal technique in mind as you listened to his distinctive piping tenor amid a mix of classics and newer material – powerful, poignant, troubled and transcendent, shot through with self-deprecating wit, and a fine summation of the festival’s open-minded, egalitarian spirit.

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