To complement our annual list of the year's best albums in popular music, Christianity Today also offers a selection of notable sacred music recordings, primarily in the choral and classical genres.
We again asked Jane Holstein, an editor with Hope Publishing Company and an arranger, choral clinician, organist, worship planner, and concert artist, to compile this list of fine albums.
Bob Jones University Singers and Orchestra
Beyond All Praising [Soundforth]
This easy-listening presentation of 15 choral anthems begins ginning with a festive setting by Richard Nichols based on "All Creatures of Our God and King." There's a splendid melody from Gustav Holst's symphonic work "Jupiter" (from The Planets) that was later adapted into hymn form by Ralph Vaughan Williams [sung in Britain to "I Vow to Thee, My Country"]. Here, the tune is set to a 1982 text by another British writer, Michael Perry, for which the CD is named: "O God beyond all praising, we worship you today." Dan Forrest shows his adept ability to take this majestic hymn and arrange and orchestrate it with the grandeur due. In contrast, he sets the Isaac Watts text "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" in a compelling Celtic ballad, complete with the sweet, melodious sound of uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes), featuring the traditional English melody, "O Waly Waly." An original anthem by Molly Ijames, "A Triune Prayer," provides a meditative reflection based on a poignant intercession to the Trinity with poetic text by Chris Anderson. Mary McDonald sets Samuel Wesley's words "O for a thousand tongues to sing" in the dynamic, original work, "His Glorious Praise in Song." Overall, it's a solid listening experience of church anthems, with each selection tastefully orchestrated and performed with dignity.
All Glory Be to God on High (Triune Music)
American organist-composer Charles Callahan, who has spent a career in church music with hundreds of compositions in print, recently completed this project featuring the organ at St. Michael Church in Wheaton, Illinois. The album represents literature that uplifts and reminds one that the organ is still a force in church music. The versatile tone pallet takes the listener from dramatic and full sounds to gentle and warm, featuring twenty musical jewels from Handel and Bach through selections from the late 19th and early 20th century. Callahan completes the recording with four of his own hymn reflections including "Jesus Loves Me," a tender rendition that features rich strings with the melody rising above on a single, pure flute stop. Similarly, "Prelude on Three Hymntunes" conveys Callahan's ability to write with simple color and clarity, allowing the listener to reflect on the meaningful texts associated with these tunes. Completing the recording, a joyous fanfare based on "Now Thank We All Our God" allows the cathedral to really shine with acoustics that are not often found in American churches.
Brahms on Brass (Opening Day)
Chances are if you've ever heard brass music, you've heard the Canadian Brass—five guys acclaimed for their remarkable abilities, who over the last four decades have recorded 90 albums with millions of sales. Brahms on Brass displays a variety of moods and styles in the transcriptions of keyboard music written by Johannes Brahms. Starting with his Sixteen Waltzes, Opus 39, the ensemble gives a spirited performance of these lighter pieces that were originally written for piano duet. Displaying their unquestionable agility and lyricism, you sense the entertaining quality of these little gems with their folk-like melodies. But it's the second half of the CD that really explores the sacred, with music from near the end of Brahms' life. His Eleven Chorale Preludes for Organ, Op. 122, are full of depth and reflective spirituality. I've performed these works as a church organist, but here heard nuances and expressive melodic lines as if for the first time. The lovely Christmas chorale "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen" (Lo, how a rose e'er blooming) is a fine example of exemplary tone from these renowned showmen.
Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass
Live in Concert (CSO Resound)
The CSO, home to the world's most legendary brass section, here showcases six horn players, four trumpeters, three trombonists, and a tuba. The variety, recorded in Chicago's Symphony Center, opens with the entire ensemble performing a mighty rendition of William Walton's "Crown Imperial" (heard at the Royal Wedding). Three sacred works follow, showcasing a powerful display of music dating back to Venetian composer Giovanni Gabrieli. Two antiphonal groups, standing stage right and stage left, create an overall dialogue effect that is captured through adept engineering. Especially noteworthy is J. S. Bach's famous organ work, "Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor," with its marvelous, contrapuntal lines that create unique demands from every section with an end result of pure lucidity. Drawing from music written for wind ensemble, the charming "Lincolnshire Posy" by Percy Grainger adds lightness. Two extensive symphonic transcriptions scored for brass and percussion round out the concert.
The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge
Beyond All Mortal Dreams (Hyperion)
If you've seen the videos of Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir, you'll quickly get a sense for current American choral literature and the impact it's having around the world. That may explain the release of this project, in which the Choir of Trinity College explores a cappella music written in England, primarily by living composers. This highly regarded choir demonstrates what the human voice can do with masterful poetic texts and easy-to-listen-to tonal and harmonic structure. A text by H. W. Longfellow is the basis for "The Day Is Done" by Stephen Paulus, perhaps the most-recognized composer on the disc. The album's title comes from Paulus's spiritual side, with his setting of "Pilgrims' Hymn": "Even with darkness sealing us in, we breathe your name / And through all the days that follow so fast, we trust in you / Endless your grace, beyond all mortal dream." Newer to the scene is Juilliard graduate Ola Gjeilo, who has become extremely popular with American choirs; he demonstrates his fresh style in the closing selection "Phoenix" (written for the Phoenix Chorale), using the "Agnus Dei" from the Latin Mass. If the range of dynamics tells you anything, expect to hear this prayer for peace build to full intensity and conclude in a hush—a broad spectrum of choral sound.
Sing Freedom! African-American Spirituals (Harmonia Mundi)
Founded in 1991 by director Craig Hella Johnson, Conspirare, a professional choral ensemble from Austin, Texas, derives its name from the Latin "con" and "spirare" meaning "to breathe together." These 17 diverse titles, totaling 72 minutes, showcase the scope of their capable singing. The songs of the slaves remind us of the past and link us to the present, speaking with a message of immediacy under personal circumstance, perhaps explaining their universal appeal. Classic settings include William Dawson's timeless "Soon Ah Will Be Done" and "Ain't-a-that Good News," along with three dynamic Moses Hogan arrangements, "I Got a Home in-a Dat Rock," "Walk Together, Children," and his engaging "Hold On!" These uplifting spirituals are especially gratifying to hear alongside newer arrangements. For instance, "Soon Ah Will Be Done" is preceded by a modern day version of the same spiritual as arranged by director, Craig Johnson, which he juxtaposes with "I Wanna Be Done." Hearing these settings back to back demonstrates the spiritual's relevancy for today, along with reverence for its earlier predecessor. Johnson also delivers an impressive rendition of the sorrowful "Motherless Child," with first-rate solo work. If music gives us a glimpse of heaven, then the depth of humanity found within these spirituals offers clearer vision of amazing hope amid our struggles, easing our earthly burdens.
Dream with Me (Integrity)
Since wowing viewers on America's Got Talent as a 10-year-old, Evancho, now 11, has earned merited reputation as a budding soprano prodigy who sings with exquisite pitch and effortless vibrato while taking the stage with the confidence and the ease of someone way beyond in years. Produced and orchestrated by David Foster, Dream with Me showcases real conviction by this young artist, with songs that demonstrate both vocal delicacy and strength, mixing light classical repertoire right alongside popularly-recognized songs like "Somewhere" and "When You Wish upon a Star." Her rendition of the Sarah McLachlan ballad, "Angel," demonstrates that she's knowledgeable about the impact music can evoke, giving a tenderhearted performance. Her sacred side is heard in "The Lord's Prayer," soaring on a high A-flat at its pinnacle moment. Two noteworthy collaborations include "A Mother's Prayer" sung with another contest winner, Susan Boyle, and the phenomenal arrangement of "Somewhere" sung with one of her biggest supporters, Barbra Streisand.
Gloria Dei Cantores Schola
The Chants of the Angels (Gloria Dei Cantores)
For those who enjoy exploring the historical roots of sacred music, this compilation of expertly sung Gregorian chant is definitely worth consideration. Even before Christ's birth, chant was used in sacred worship, and it's conceivable that the songs that Jesus sang were based on melodies that have survived through the centuries. Through hymns, antiphons, alleluias, and other liturgical responses, here is an opportunity to listen and slow the inner spirit down with purity of unison singing that allows for meditation and peace. Great detail was given to this compilation, all centering on the significance of angels—as messengers, protectors, warriors, guardians. The vocalists, male and female, demonstrate rhythmic integrity and sensitive musical phrasing, and through the singing of chant express the wonder and mystery of the Christian faith with purity of tone. An exquisitely designed CD booklet serves as a guide to learning more about angels; it's filled with art renderings, Scripture, and translations of each of the Latin texts.
A Thousand Years (Music to Light the World)
The Atlanta-based pianist and composer Stanton Lanier learned the power of music after leaving the corporate world to pursue a career in music ministry. His seventh solo recording, A Thousand Years delivers the message of God's hope and peace with soothing hymn melodies wrapped around familiar classical tunes. Through his innovative Get Music Give Hope initiative, part of Lanier's Music to Light The World ministry, these CDs will find their way into countless hospitals and cancer centers, offering comfort through mesmerizing, gentle compositions. The title track forms the thematic foundation stemming from the Psalmist's words, "A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night," and here Lanier combines an original melody with "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "It Is Well with My Soul." Every selection is inspired by Scripture and incorporates something familiar with something new. "For a Lifetime of Blessing" centers on The Doxology, while "Across the Skies" features Pachelbel's Canon in D. A touch of English horn, guitar and vocals gives the sensation of beauty and inspiration, allowing for meditation, reflection and quiet worship.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
This Is the Christ (MTC)
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra deliver another glorious recording in this compilation focusing on the attributes of Jesus Christ. This inspirational CD is a mix of tastefully arranged, nostalgic hymnody, like the rarely-heard "Sunshine in My Soul" and the uplifting "Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling" featuring the women of the chorus. Mack Wilberg's setting of the 23rd Psalm, "The Lord My Pasture Will Prepare," borrows from a Russian Christmas carol creating a quaint, pastoral moment with spirited, lilting rhythms. The unsurpassed orchestral accompaniment perfectly complements the choral richness, as in the title track, a dramatic portrayal centering on the Apostle Peter's words from the Gospel of Matthew. Classic choral works round out the treasury, giving listeners another great experience from an American mainstay.
The St. Olaf Choir
Great Hymns of Faith, Vol. III (St. Olaf Records)
Coming from one of America's most preeminent choral institutions, the St. Olaf Choir models a superior sound featuring 75 mixed voices under the well-respected leadership of Anton Armstrong. With this third volume of Great Hymns of Faith, listeners are rewarded with something unique in a playlist of hymnody that will stand the test of time. Using a wide selection of hymns both classic and new, the arrangements give expression to the melodies and texts in a fresh, yet straightforward approach, as in "Rock of Ages," unaccompanied and performed at a tempo and mood that allows for deeper reflection. The festive "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee," arranged by St. Olaf's acclaimed organist, John Ferguson, includes a splendid fanfare for organ and brass which leads into a choral proclamation: "Make a joyful noise to the Lord; come into God's presence with a song." The choir showcases its ability to sing with skillful inflections in a handful of global pieces, including a setting of the traditional Cameroon song, "Praise, Praise the Lord!" (known by the tune name (African Processional").
Living Voices (Naxos)
Loss and remembrance provide the framework for the newest release from the gifted young British composer, James Whitbourn. The album features his breathtaking "Son of God Mass" scored for choir, organ, and an astonishing display of soprano saxophone. This powerful music calls for an expansive pallet of otherworldly colors and sounds encased within the Latin words of the Mass, and through them a mesmerizing, spiritual journey ensues. With piercing intensity, the emotion-filled saxophone solo moves in and around the score with sweeping melodies—all accompanied by the pipe organ and expansive choral writing. The title track, written in response to 9/11, incorporates spoken word poetry and possesses a mood of reverence, underscored by sustained choral voices and solo saxophone. The performers are the pristine voices of the Westminster Williamson Voices from Westminster Choir College of Princeton, New Jersey, masterfully conducted by James Jordan.
Jane Holstein, an editor with Hope Publishing Company, is an arranger, choral clinician, organist, worship planner, and concert artist, residing in Wheaton, Illinois, with her husband, David L. Weck. She is also Director of Music Ministries at First Presbyterian Church in River Forest, Illinois.
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