St Andrews Voices/The Sixteen

Despite the constraints facing just about every music festival this year, the 8th St Andrew’s Voices made a sterling effort to turn its normal live annual presence into a comprehensive and cohesive digital one. 
The answer was Distant Voices, themed around sea-related images and structured as successive hourly events on Youtube throughout Saturday 17 October from 7am to 10pm. Not so much a day in the life of murky waters from an east coast perspective, though, as a mix of recitals, discussions and workshops inspired by evocative trigger titles: Dawn, Coast, Waves, Spray, Tide, etc.

The content was varied as a consequence, from traditional and classical to beat boxer SK Schlomo, as was the level of performance and presentation. Locations ranged from the St Salvator’s Chapel Choir’s outdoor a cappella potpourri in a windy St Andrews Bandstand to the wooded warmth of the McPherson Recital Room in the university’s new Laidlaw Music Centre.

But the most memorable musical moments happened not actually in St Andrews itself, but beamed in from the Gothic Revival magnificence of St Augustine’s Church in North London and featuring Harry Christophers’ equally awesome vocal ensemble The Sixteen.

They contributed two beautifully crafted, skilfully produced programmes: Dawn, which was Distant Voices’ Saturday breakfast shift; and Ocean, the 10pm bedtime slot and Festival finale.

In both of these, introduced by the charming Christophers himself, the voices melded with a homogenous radiance that embraced each a cappella gem, a two-programme selection almost exclusively drawn from the Renaissance treasure chest, but opening with James MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn, itself a throwback to the golden age of the Elizabethan motet with an unmistakable resemblance in its opening four chords to those of Thomas Tallis’ O nata lux.

Thomas Campion’s 1613 setting of the sailor’s prayer for calm seas, Never weather-beaten sail, flowed naturally out of the mental echoes of the MacMillan, its strophic simplicity acting as divine preparation for the polyphonic riches of Tomas Luis de Victoria’s office hymn Ave maris stella.

The Sixteen’s late night programme opened with the magical luminous density of William Byrd’s 8-part Diliges Dominum, before engaging movingly with the even more daring harmonic adventures, madrigal-like, of Thomas Campion’s Author of Light. John Sheppard’s Libera nos provided a perfect summation, richly textured, intricately crafted, with an overwhelming synthesis of stasis and perpetual motion that imbued its performance with sustained and thrilling intensity. 

Christophers, in his introduction, expressed his hope that The Sixteen would be back in Scotland next year. How good would that be?
Ken Walton

Distant Voices is available for viewing at