Winchester Cathedral was the venue for the third leg of The Sixteen’s current nationwide tour. It’s an artfully curated pilgrimage of English music from medieval to modern with Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell as the emotional centrepiece. Mostly ancient texts linked to a state of hopefulness, either in the here and now or in the afterlife, formed a broad theme carried variously by anonymous and metaphysical poets.

Harry Christophers and The Sixteen
© Firedog

The Songs of Farewell may not have been conceived as ecclesiastical repertoire, but there’s little doubt of their pertinence in a religious setting. Their noble grandeur found a natural home in Winchester Cathedral, where Parry’s soaring phrases seemed to mirror the nave vaulting. Clarity can be a problem in a building that has the longest nave of any Gothic cathedral in Europe, but for those fortunate to sit relatively near the singers, miracles of a cappella virtuosity were much in evidence. Harry Christophers coaxed each telling phrase, always with an ear to accommodate the cathedral’s problematic acoustics. The final cadence of There is an old belief was exquisitely judged, its rapture bringing a glimpse of paradise tantalisingly close. He’s also a precise and elastic conductor, superbly controlling the fearsome counterpoint in Lord, let me know mine end and illuminating the voice leading at “O spare me a little”, its candlelit intimacy a further vision of heaven, and an idyllic escape from the trauma of the Great War raging across the channel when this work was written. The discovery of heaven’s joys emerged with great poise in Never weather-beaten sail and the “one who never changes” was admirably conveyed in My soul, there is another country, its final chords incisively articulated. Triumph and tenderness were well-served in the evocation of the Last Judgement found in At the round earth imagined corners. Above all, each motet was invested with an emotional charge, a conviction that would have thrilled the composer had he heard them as a complete set. All six (written between 1913-1917) were sung for the first time at a memorial concert for the composer at Exeter College, Oxford, in 1919.

Some sixty plus years later Herbert Howells conceived his valedictory anthem Take him, earth for cherishing written in 1964 for “the honoured memory” of John F Kennedy following his assassination the previous year. Turning to the early Christian poet Prudentius (and a translation by Helen Waddell), Howells responds to its consoling text with richly sensuous music that reaches out for the beyond, its yearning fully realised in this sumptuous performance. Thoughts of a new life and new beginnings surfaced again in Cecilia McDowall’s atmospheric An Unexpected Shore, the first of three movements belonging to her recent Good News from New England, which venerates the lives of the Pilgrim Fathers who sailed on the Mayflower to set up home in the New World. The music charts their perilous journey in a series of harmonically searching paragraphs that eventually find resolution in an affirmative G major. Judging from this outing, The Sixteen gave every reason for this work to become as popular as many of McDowall’s other highly communicative works.

By way of contrast, the rest of the programme was occupied with several medieval carols and three anthems by the Renaissance poet and lutenist Thomas Campion, all sung with exemplary clarity and rhythmic precision. For an encore, The Sixteen closed with the patriotic hymn A Prayer for Ukraine by Mykola Lysenko, their singing a model of refinement.